Rivers of Suggestion: The best of R.E.M.

By the time I came to R.E.M., they already belonged to the world. Only by retracing their catalog did I understand they had belonged first to Athens, Georgia; then to the South; and then to the college rock underground. But even when they strode the earth like giants— stadium-fillers and soul-winners second only to U2—there was always a pulse of strangeness to their music, a shroud of mystique, an aroma of the unknowable. Maybe this makes their success uniquely resonant in the South: Even winning mass acclaim didn’t make them feel less like outsiders. Their triumph was in how they brought a regional accent to a universal tongue. It was in how they started out strange, and mostly stayed that way.

Much of their other-ness can be attributed to Michael Stipe, one of the great rock singers of all time, whose earliest contributions to the band were cryptic lyrics delivered in mumbles and murmurs. Eventually he learned to enunciate, which isn’t the same thing as making himself clear: Even in their commercial prime, R.E.M.’s songs were often emotionally resonant and logically inscrutable. There’s also Peter Buck, who became one of the era’s most notable and influential guitar players by cribbing the jingle-jangle of The Byrds and the ragged simplicity of garage rock. Mike Mills, ostensibly the bass player, provided some of the band’s most memorable flourishes on organ, keys, and most crucially on harmony vocals; he and Stipe belong on any list of the all-time great rock and roll singing foils. Drummer Bill Berry was the band’s pulse— and, as became clear following his departure in 1997, their voice of reason.

If there’s an opposite to striking while the iron’s hot, R.E.M. did it masterfully and perhaps pathologically. Every successful album was followed by one that felt completely opposite. Sometimes these U-turns generated even greater successes: Consider that, after spearheading a revival in guitar rock, they got the biggest hit of their career by trading the guitar for a mandolin.

Ranking my favorite R.E.M. albums is tough because so many of them are good, and they are good for very different reasons. A majority of their studio albums are included here, but I will note one emphatic absence: Around the Sun, a limp and listless album released in the fall of 2004. Upon its release, I listened over and over, hoping to hear something that would redeem it. That’s the album that broke my heart.

Perhaps because the band never burned out— they amicably retired in 2011, a decade and a half past their commercial prime— their music isn’t romanticized like that of, say, Nirvana. Such is the curse of their steadiness and longevity. Kids today don’t know just how great this band was; here’s where I would start:

01. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Captures a band in transition—but also a band in triumph. On their fourth album, R.E.M. still sounded every bit the scruffy Athens scene-setters, but by now it was obvious they were headed for the big leagues. To help them get there, they enlisted producer Don Gehman, who cleaned up their sound just enough for you to hear Berry’s beats glisten, and Stipe articulate his lyrics with greater clarity than ever. Rather than sounding boxed in by their ambitions, they sound inspired: How else do you explain the way frantic punk (“Just a Touch”) crashes into a stately Civil War ballad (“Swan Swan H”), with both of them preceded by an apocalyptic salsa (“Underneath the Bunker”)? This is also the album where Stipe’s slanted verse coalesced into a clear political worldview, or at least a galvanizing call against disengagement. I can’t necessarily parse every line, but I can tell that “Fall on Me” betrays a conservationist’s heart, and “These Days” champions the wisdom of youth. Years later, I don’t know which is more rousing: Stipe’s idealistic appeals (“we are hope despite the times”), or Mills’ pure bubblegum closer (a cover of The Clique’s “Superman”). The future seemed so bright!

02. Automatic for the People (1992)
By 1992, R.E.M. were ready to embrace their role as elder statesmen— meaning, a ruminative, ballad-heavy exploration of age, mortality, and lost innocence. Ruminative doesn’t mean austere, as Automatic for the People is richly textured and colorful. Part of that’s the string arrangements from John Paul Jones, but part of it’s the varied material, which includes a simmering sex song (“Star Me Kitten”), grown-up nursery rhymes (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”), and Stipe’s hammy Elvis Presley impression in “Man on the Moon.” These songs are emotional counterweights to the more pensive songs, and make Automatic more than a funeral dirge: It’s actually a bracing affirmation of life lived fully. That’s important context for “Everybody Hurts,” the most basic thing Stipe ever wrote, which gains particular resonance when you hear it as a rejoinder to grunge’s nihilism and despair.

03. Reckoning (1984)
The one I play when I just want to hear R.E.M. in careening, garage-rock mode… which is pretty often. With the phrase “rivers of suggestion,” Stipe provides the perfect shorthand for describing his own lyrics; an adroit piece of self-criticism.

04. Monster (1994)
At the height of their celebrity, R.E.M. took to hiding in plain sight. On Monster, they bury their songs in murky wah-wah pedals, and Stipe evades the spotlight with story-songs of anguish, dysfunction, and kink. It sounds like the work of a band desperate not to be seen, yet they’re writing about characters crawling out of their skin for some kind of connection. The feedback-drenched “Let Me In,” written in eulogy for Kurt Cobain, tops “Everybody Hurts” to be their most persuasive answer to grunge. And the trashy, thrashy “Circus Envy” remains one of the underappreciated gems in their catalog.

05. Out of Time (1991)
Their sweeping, blockbuster pop album, loaded with lavish string arrangements and high-caliber guest vocalists. This generates some expensive filler, like the instrumental “Endgame,” but mostly it speaks to their confidence as a band: Even when they lean hard into platinum-plated studiocraft, they still sound like R.E.M. Most of the album feels irresistibly sweet, though its two best songs happen to be its most anguished: A mandolin-driven unrequited love song (“Losing My Religion”) and Stipe’s dejected, stream-of-consciousness relationship postmortem (“Country Feedback”). Some would say the album sounds a little too sweet, at least on the unabashedly chipper “Shiny Happy People,” which the band later said they hated. But by hearing it as a satire of the artificially upbeat, I think we should allow it.

06. Green (1988)
Among the things that R.E.M. were very good at, spindly folk songs and delirious bubblegum pop both rank fairly high on the list. Green is heavy on both, bearing witness to a band that was always going to sound idiosyncratic because they just had no other way to be. “Stand” always makes me wish they’d made a children’s album. Three songs later, Stipe is singing about chemical weaponry!

07. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
One of the classic “recorded on the road albums” where the band channeled pent-up adrenaline into brave experimentation. (See also: U2’s Zooropa.) New Adventures contains some of their most adventurous writing, their goofiest larks, and their most muscular rock and roll performances; it’s a hodgepodge, but it adds up to a picture of a band with limitless possibility in front of them. A year later, Bill Berry left the band, and they would never sound quite this confident ever again.

08. Document (1987)
Fierce, polished, professional rock and roll; the one you’re most likely to hear playing on AOR radio stations to this day (assuming those still exist). I’m more partial to the ragged feel of Lifes Rich Pageant, but there’s no denying the power of their performances here. Contains two of their most essential songs (“The One I Love,” “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”), but my favorite moment is a boisterous take on Wire’s “Strange,” which they perform as a bubblegum anthem, and which sounds like it’s a song about R.E.M.: “Michael’s nervous and the lights are bright/ There’s something going on that’s not quite right.”

09. Murmur (1983)
They’d go on to write better songs, but Murmur remains an iconic debut. Come for the weird textures, the blurry vocals, and the perfect jangle of the guitars. Stay for the tunes: From the very beginning, R.E.M. were melodists of the highest order.

10. Reveal (2001)
Berry left the band in 1997, and the remaining trio embarked on a three-album boondoggle through increasingly-labored, synth-driven studio experiments. I would describe the first of these albums, Up, as an uneven but admirable adventure; and the third, Around the Sun, as hot garbage. Reveal is the trilogy’s middle chapter, and its most successful: Though it wants for the kinetic energy of the band’s rock and roll recordings, it almost makes up for it with its ravishing and romantic melodies, testimonies to the group’s fascination with The Beach Boys. This could almost pass for a Stipe solo album, and he has never sounded more tender as a singer or as a lyricist, penning warm, accessible songs about childlike faith, imagination, and the pains of growing up.

11. Accelerate (2008)
R.E.M. shook off the malaise of Around the Sun with this tight, fat-free rock and roll album—a risk-averse update of Document’s rock and roll professionalism. And professionalism is hardly without its merits. By this point R.E.M. knew a thing or two about cranking out monster riffs, pacing an album with real momentum, and refusing to wear out their welcome. They couldn’t recapture the mystique of the earliest records, and perhaps were wise not to try; they still knew how to sound like a cutthroat rock and roll band, and some days that’s all you can ask for.

Hard to Be Anywhere These Days: Top 25 Albums of 2020

I’ve clearly dropped the ball this year, at least as far as blogging goes. I won’t make any excuse for myself, except to say that the value in criticism can seem tenuous on a good day, and has sometimes felt like an unseemly luxury during a global pandemic and a fraught election season. It is a luxury that my mental and emotional bandwidth just haven’t been about to accommodate. Maybe I can make it up to you by recommending 25 albums that have quieted, comforted, challenged, and sustained me throughout this strange year.

As ever, there are purely personal selections, and if you ask me to redo this list in even a week’s time some of the entries might change. But all are outstanding, and all have gotten a lot of play here at Hurst HQ.

One slight departure from previous years: For whatever reason, it suits my mood to start with the #1 slot this year, rather than do my customary countdown. Life is short. Let’s get right to it.

01. Folklore | Taylor Swift
Swift has always been a remarkable songwriter. Nevertheless, her eighth album reveals a marked maturing of her craft—not so much in her casual swearing, but in the blood she draws from clean, uncluttered metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). And, she remains unequalled in writing show-stopping bridges, using them to deliver narrative pivots and grand flourishes of emotion. Her writing on Folklore is so structured that you can almost imagine these songs as standards (bring on the Tony Bennet versions); with no need to leave them legible for stadium crowds, however, Swift deliberately obscures them in misty, spongy arrangements, primarily via The National’s Aaaron Dessner. There is a faintly transgressive pleasure in the thought that Folklore might give millions of listeners their gateway drug into dream-pop, minimalism, New Age, and folk music, but the more straightforward pleasure is hearing Swift navigate new sounds with the most understated, assured singing of her career. For as much fuss as Swift has made about writing in a less autobiographical mode, she remains her own greatest character, allowing Folklore to glow with tiny embers of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). On an album born in isolation, Swift stretches further and probes deeper than ever.

02. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
Deployed like emergency rations at the peak of the George Floyd protests, RTJ4 is an album born of a long, weary history of violence and dehumanization, and for a few tense weeks felt like the only new music worthy of its fraught era. Mercifully, it’s also a rap lover’s dream, an album targeted at the pleasure centers of old heads and connoisseurs. Clattering production, worthy of the Bomb Squad, shapes street noise and psychedelic sound effects into the sleekest, funkiest, most undiluted Run the Jewels record yet, and provides the perfect cacophony to feed the duo’s wisecracks, breaking news bulletins, and arresting autobiography. The buddy-comedy routine between El-P and Killer Mike has always gestured toward nihilism, but that’s getting less and less credible; they remain crusaders for the golden age rap records they grew up on, unwilling to surrender that sound to nostalgia or obsolescence. They draw strength from an aesthetic, but more than that, they draw strength from each other: Underneath the cynicism, RTJ4 is really a sweet album about brotherhood.

03. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
Song for song and joke for joke, Apple is as funny as any of her male peers— and that’s true even if you count Bob Dylan among her clique, which you probably should. With pitch-black cabaret routines and put-downs worthy of a battle rapper, Apple is unflinching in her interrogation of personal grievances and societal abuses that fester in #metoo’s wake. A few songs capture the old Fiona, showing her to be undiminished as a piano troubadour of peerless phrasing and panache; more characteristic are songs that wrest homemade percussion and barking dogs into a sound that is raucous, uninhibited, and untamed by genre.

04. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
Cook journeyed through hell to make this record, surviving loss, divorce, and rehab. You can hear all of that in the music— not because it’s confessional, but because Cook’s slanted, complicated narratives are so full of rage, despair, black comedy, and hard-won empathy. The hardscrabble honky-tonk of her early albums wouldn’t quite work for songs so prickly, so she instead fills them with gnarled riffs, stomping rhythms, and elliptical takes on heartland rock.

05. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
Imagine listening to this, the best Dylan record since Love & Theft, and thinking he was a maladroit singer. Imagine believing that a younger man could bring a softer touch to the blues numbers, or more grit to the torch songs. Imagine hearing Bob’s tender litany of emotional touchpoints in “Murder Most Foul” and still thinking it was just a song about JFK.

06. Women in Music Part III | HAIM
To fully appreciate all the weird, scraggly textures on HAIM’s third album, consider how easy it might have been for them to coast forever on their sweet, sisterly harmonies and euphoric pop melodies. Both are omnipresent here, but exist within a larger ecosystem: Leaning into their earnestness, their goofy sense of humor, their ear for noise, and their instinct for studiocraft, HAIM has altered the language of classic rock into a dialect all their own.

07. Who Are You? | Joel Ross
Following a smooth, assured debut, the young vibraphonist and bandleader returns with a small-group, straight-ahead jazz album bursting at the seams with ideas and invention. Ross’ music is a thrilling reminder of how the jazz tradition offers endless permutations of texture, rhythm, and tone.

08. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
On previous albums, the world’s greatest soul singer laid claim to the songs of the British Invasion and the towering catalog of Bob Dylan. Astonishing, she’s just now making an album of songs popularized by Black women— with one Beatles tune to serve as a coda. LaVette locates the pain and resolve in song after song of heartache and despair, all of which gain their full meaning through a harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

09. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
Nothing ever sounds too effortful on a Whitney Rose album. For her fourth, she proves herself once again to be a singer of impeccable instinct and restraint, and a graceful navigator of soaring country-rock, slinky blues, and tender ballads. Her craft is seamless and unforced, making it easy to take for granted just how smart and sturdy the record really is.

10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
One of the year’s great left-field surprises is this sweet, playful little record from Japan, which elegantly blends jazz, ambient, and New Age music with clean, folksy melodies. Its tranquility offers a welcome refuge from hurry and anxiety.

11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
Summoning the same all-star band that joined him on I Am a Man— merely one of the richest , deepest jazz records of the past decade— cornetist Ron Miles offers another collection of handsome, stately originals: Songs that move gracefully from meditation to mischief, from deep blues to spirited swing. 

12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
Just 30 years old and with seven solo albums to her credit, Laura Marling gets deeper, wiser, and more emotionally articulate with each release. Her latest is filled with stories of collapse and resolve, and shows that she’s gotten scarily good at perfectly-crafted couplets designed to break your heart. Here’s one: “I feel a fool, so do you/ For believing it could work out, like some things do.”

13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
Recording in a one-woman-band arrangement a la Prince or Stevie Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow recreates the loose, exploratory feel of a jazz ensemble— and, sustains an affectionate, referential dialogue with the lineage of Black music.

14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
Deeply nostalgic, but not uncritically so. It’s as if Springsteen is holding a seance with a younger version of himself, writing new songs that reflect on his glory days while resurrecting old ones from the vantage point of age and experience. All of it summons the majestic heft of the E-Street Band, who wear familiarity as a badge of honor. Together, they weigh the burden of mortality against the fleeting joy that rock and roll can bring, frequently making it sound like a worthy trade-off.

15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
Price has made a couple of handsome country albums, but what many of us now realize is that we’ve always wanted her to make trashy little rock and roll records, full of grudges and bile. This one, produced by Price with Surgill Simpson, gleefully obliges. 

16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
If it’s a knockout voice you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find better than Neilson, a singer of rarified power, precision, and personality. Past albums have run the gamut of country and soul, but CHICKABOOM! offers something distilled: A pure concentrate of raucous, roadhouse rhythm and blues.

17. Headlight | Della Mae
Play any given minute of any given Della Mae album (including this one) and you’ll get all the evidence you need that these women can play. But Headlight offers a lot more than pure bluegrass virtuosity: It’s their richest and most expansive work yet, accommodating feisty love songs and topical laments; crawling blues, rowdy hoedowns, swaying ballads, even gospel choruses.

18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
For the third and best airing of Scott-Heron’s stirring I’m New Here material, drummer and producer McCraven dices and splices the late poet’s spoken word recitations, setting his rich words against vivid musical backdrops. The resulting album honors not just Scott-Heron’s prodigal wanderings through abuse and addiction, but also his legacy as a bridge between jazz and hip-hop.

19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
It was only a matter of time before the extroverted Adam Weiner— our most dependable purveyor of down and dirty rock and roll— set his ambitions to a concept album. Private Lives condenses 17 songs into 55 minutes, and creates a patchwork of quiet desperation, nagging self-doubt, and unspoken prayers for redemption. Thankfully, it still sounds like down and dirty rock and roll.

20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Ten cover songs reveal a different side of Welch and Rawlings. Where they are normally fastidious, here they sound carefree and casual; just a couple of crazy kids with time on their hands, some reel-to-reel recording equipment, and a burning love for American folk music. Come for Gillian’s sensitive reading of a John Prine tune; stay for Dave’s immaculate Dylan snarl.

21. Source | Nubya Garcia
The young sax prodigy’s first album as a leader fulfills all the promise she’s shown through her guest spots and supporting roles. The album’s vibrant pan-culturalism reminds you that she comes from an immigrant family, while the speaker-rattling bass suggests an upbringing on hip-hop; but it’s her questing solos that reveal how much she’s learned from her elders, and how much history informs her take on the shape of jazz to come.

22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
Gifted in so many tragically unfashionable ways, the Brooklyn trio delivers earnest anthems to a world that’s largely put such things behind it. For anyone with room in their hearts for a bit of the ol’ U2-style grandeur, this album is pitch-perfect in channeling loss and grief into catharsis, and in making intimate reflections sound universal. The cruelest irony of all: Some of these songs would sound great in an arena.

23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
A beloved singer and songwriter emerges from self-imposed exile, proving that she’s lost neither her delicate touch nor her dry sense of humor. These warm, earnest originals speak to the bittersweetness of domestic life, highlighting isolation and regret, yet still finding room for gratitude. Nearly every song on the album is darker and more conflicted than it first sounds, which lends surprising ballast to Edwards’ seemingly-breezy country-rock.

24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
Reconvening nearly 30 years after their last studio summit— that would be Redman’s excellent MoodSwing, from 1994—four of the leading luminaries in jazz get together for egoless, leaderless improvisation. In a fraught year, RoundAgain offers a balm: The sound of easy chemistry between long-time pals, lost together in a spirit of play.

25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
Arriving just in time to soundtrack a few million quarantine dance parties, the young British singer’s second album offers a master class in state-of-the-art disco. Singles and could-be singles pile up one after the other— coiled, propulsive, fat-free— and quickly create the illusion that you’re listening to a greatest hits collection.

Honorable Mention: Evermore | Taylor Swift
All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. Surprise-released a few days after I drafted this list, her second album of the year expands upon the moody aesthetic of Folklore, doubling down on its autumnal vibe but also sharpening and clarifying it with a dab of 1989 gloss, a few left-field experiments, and at least one track that could almost fit in on country radio. It’s less surprising, less consistent, and more adventurous than the album that came before it, impressive enough to warrant its inclusion as an unranked bonus pick.

I’ve Mined That Song Forever, Part 2: Further reflections on the music of 2019

nick cave

Like I was saying: It was a great year for records. My list of annotated favorites includes several titles I’d qualify as masterpieces, and plenty more that come close enough. 

The just-the-facts version, expanded to a full top 50, is as follows, along with a few additional loose ends. I’ll be back in 2020 with some best-of-decade reflections, then on to new albums!

Thanks as ever to all of you who join me on these adventures in listening. I do not take for granted the gifts of your time and attention, and remain hopeful that I’ve honored them by turning you on to something good.

50 Favorite Albums from 2019

  1. The Gospel According to Water| Joe Henry
  2. Ghosteen | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  3. LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods
  4. Lover | Taylor Swift
  5. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens
  6. Wildcard | Miranda Lambert
  7. Breakdown on 20th Ave. South | Buddy & Julie Miller
  8. Father of the Bride | Vampire Weekend
  9. My Finest Work Yet | Andrew Bird
  10. Songs of Our Native Daughters | Our Native Daughters
  11. Love and Revelation | Over the Rhine
  12. Patty Griffin | Patty Griffin
  13. Silences | Adia Victoria
  14. Blood | Allison Moorer
  15. Open Book | Kalie Shorr
  16. The Center Won’t Hold | Sleater-Kinney
  17. Western Stars | Bruce Springsteen
  18. Amidst the Chaos | Sara Bareilles
  19. Canterbury Girls | Lily & Madeleine
  20. Absolute Zero | Bruce Hornsby
  21. Crushing | Julia Jacklin
  22. Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3 | Todd Snider
  23. The Highwomen | The Highwomen
  24. To Myself | Baby Rose
  25. Walk Through Fire | Yola
  26. Fever Breaks | Josh Ritter
  27. Amadjar | Tinariwen
  28. The Hurting Kind | John Paul White
  29. Giants of All Sizes | Elbow
  30. Jaime | Brittany Howard
  31. Internationally Unknown | Rat Boy
  32. TEXAS | Rodney Crowell
  33. Let’s Rock | The Black Keys
  34. Love and Liberation | Jazzmeia Horn
  35. On the Line | Jenny Lewis
  36. Aventurine | Linda May Han Oh
  37. By Blood | Shovels & Rope
  38. Two Hands | Big Thief
  39. Magdalene | FKA twigs
  40. What it Is | Hayes Carll
  41. Diatom Ribbons | Kris Davis
  42. Love Hurts | Julian Lage
  43. i,i | Bon Iver
  44. Sunshine Rock | Bob Mould
  45. Hurts 2B Human | P!nk
  46. Anthropocosmic Nest | The Messthetics
  47. Crowing Ignites | Bruce Cockburn
  48. While I’m Livin’ | Tanya Tucker
  49. 2019 | Lucy Dacus
  50. Finding Gabriel | Brad Mehldau

Disappointments

I don’t especially enjoy dismembering anyone else’s creative output, but in the interest of candor, I’ll take a moment to register just a few albums that left me cold this year, by artists I typically enjoy. As ever, your mileage may vary.

The Big Day | Chance the Rapper
The Black Album | Weezer
The Teal Album | Weezer
Jesus is King | Kanye West
Sound and Fury | Sturgill Simpson

I have half a mind to include Willie Nelson’s Ride Me Back Home on this short list, a largely pleasant and agreeable album that falls just a bit short of recent standouts like Last Man Standing and My Way. And, I’ll confess to enjoying Maren Morris’ GIRL quite a bit less than I enjoyed HERO, though between her role in The Highwomen and her uproarious duet with Miranda Lambert, she is still one of this year’s MVPs. (And, “The Bones” is an excellent single.)

Re-Issues and Older Music

A commitment to new releases means that it’s sometimes difficult finding time for re-issues. One of my hopes for the holiday break is to catch up with some of the lavish reappraisals of classics like Abbey Road and The Band. The one re-issue that I can vouch for here is the 25th Anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Monster, which dials back some of the guitar effects in favor of greater crispness and clarity. It remains a singularly moving document of a band that’s hurting, and trying anything and everything not to be fully seen.

A Year Ago

These end-of-year lists are always intended to be snapshots, and it would be foolish for me to assume my rankings would ever remain static or unmoving. Looking back at last year’s list, I can safely say that I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for any of my selections. I will note that it took me a few months to catch up with Universal Beings, from the great drummer and bandleader Makaya McCraven, which provides an immersive set of grooves and textures even as it persuasively bridges the gap between jazz performance and hip-hop production. It probably would have made my top 10, had I only heard it in time. An album that did make my top 10 is Love in Wartime, by the mighty Birds of Chicago, yet in hindsight I still think I underrated it: I have returned to its durable humanity and hopefulness again and again this year, and found it to be deeply nourishing each time.

Classics in the Right Way, Part 2: Further recommendations from 2018

pistols

I have been writing about records since I was 13, and have never enjoyed it more than I have this year. Love and gratitude to all who have encouraged me in these weekly, deep-dive reviews. I hope you’ve found it even half as worthwhile as I have.

I’ll be back with more in 2019, after a brief Christmas sabbatical. But first, a few closing remarks on this past year’s new releases. For those who want a long list of albums without my annotations, here are 50 albums I cherish and whole-heartedly recommend. (Of course you can find the commentary track here.) You’ll note that some of these I never reviewed, but only due to time restrictions—not a dearth of enthusiasm. 

50 Favorite Albums from 2018

  1. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
  2. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies
  3. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
  4. Honey | Robyn
  5. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
  6. Historian | Lucy Dacus
  7. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
  8. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
  9. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
  10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
  11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
  12. Time & Space | Turnstile
  13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
  14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
  15. Dirty Pictures Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
  16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
  17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
  18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
  19. See You Around | I’m With Her
  20. Cusp | Alela Diane
  21. Room 25 | Noname
  22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
  23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
  24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
  25. Beyondless | Iceage
  26. Desperate Man | Eric Church
  27. Whistle Down the Wind | Joan Baez
  28. Tree of Forgiveness | John Prine
  29. Hell-On | Neko Case
  30. My Way | Willie Nelson
  31. Out of Nowhere | Steep Canyon Rangers
  32. Vanished Gardens | Charles Lloyd and the Marvels with Lucinda Williams
  33. Full Circle | Eddie Palmieri
  34. Sun on the Square | The Innocence Mission
  35. The Messthetics | The Messthetics
  36. Currents, Constellations | Nels Cline 4
  37. Seymour Reads the Constitution | Brad Mehldau Trio
  38. Last Man Standing | Willie Nelson
  39. Heaven and Earth | Kamasi Washington
  40. Port Saint Joe | Brothers Osborne
  41. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides | Sophie
  42. Broken Politics | Nenah Cherry
  43. Wanderer | Cat Power
  44. The Prodigal Son | Ry Cooder
  45. Whack World | Tierra Whack
  46. Still Dreaming | Joshua Redman
  47. Bugge Wesseltroft & Prins Thomas | Bugge Wesseltroft & Prins Thomas
  48. Cry Pretty | Carrie Underwood
  49. boygenius | boygenius
  50. The Window | Cécile McLorin Salvant

Disappointments

The most important decision a critic makes is on what he or she chooses to cover, and for me that means curating records that are worth the listener’s time and attention. There were, however, a few 2018 albums I ended up liking far less than expected; the following are all albums I had intended to write about but ultimately didn’t justify the effort, for one reason or another.

Ye | Kanye West
Man of the Woods | Justin Timberlake
Nasir | Nas
Colagically Speaking | R+R=Now
August Greene | August Greene
The Now Now | Gorillaz
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino | Arctic Monkeys

I will also register some mild disappointment with Teyana Taylor’s album, KTSE—though it’s not disappointment with the album’s quality so much as its brevity and its botched roll-out. She deserved much better.

Re-Issues and Older Music

Deep immersion in new music means I haven’t yet gotten to all of the year’s big archival roll-outs—not to the anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet nor even to Bob Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks. (I will confess to some mild Bootleg fatigue.) I have listened to the deluxe edition of The Beatles, a joyous revelation not necessarily for the bonus material so much as the chance to hear such richly imaginative and playful material come spilling out of my speakers in clarion sound. A couple of other new/old releases to note include John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once—a transitional album that nevertheless sounds sure-footed—and a sublime anthology called Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth Boogie in 1980s South Africa, so indelible that my six-year-old son has requested it on more than one occasion.

Classics in the Right Way: 25 favorite albums from 2018

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A few things you’ll see on my list of 25 favorite records from 2018: Roughly 16 selections by women, depending on how you want to classify husband-wife duos. Four official debuts, but also a number of accomplished works by seasoned pros. Numerous albums that carve out a space between tradition and progression, upholding lineage while pointing to the future. And, in these fractious times, several albums that embrace joy as a matter of intention—choosing a hopeful countenance even when circumstances point in the opposite direction.

Some critics have posited that the album format is in its dying days, to be replaced by playlists and data dumps. Maybe so, but all 25 albums on this list exist as cohesive, self-contained bodies of work, their songs in dialogue with each other, their sequencing precise and important.

I could have listed as few as 10 or as many as 100—and next week, I’ll augment this core 25 with some honorable mentions, some favorite re-issues and archival music, and more. For now, these are all albums that I’ve enjoyed enormously and recommend whole-heartedly.

25. Beyondless | Iceage
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Majestic and menacing, Beyondless reckons with the legacy of rock and roll’s golden era without anything resembling slavish devotion. Packed to the gills with riffs, rhythms, sound effects, and gallows humor, it’s the year’s most unpredictable rock album. The songs chronicle depravity, but from the abattoir of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s imagination there springs florid storytelling and impressionistic poetry.

24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
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For his strongest solo collection yet, the erstwhile Frames/Swell Season frontman casually intermingles autumnal folk, heartland rock, and luminous jazz for an album as familiar and comforting as a favorite afghan—or perhaps a favorite Nick Drake record. It takes the tone of a consoling friend, promising us that time will sort out all our grief eventually—and until then, there’s nothing wrong with having a good, long cry.

23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
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On Ventriloquism, a jukebox record of 80s and 90s R&B hits, Meshell Ndegeocello offers a multi-layered treatise on personal canon. Playing songs largely penned by women and/or people of color, Ndegeocello swaps featherweight synths for rustic folk flourishes and live-band funk—signifiers of respectability for songs that warranted our respect all along. They refract deeper issues of genre, gender, and identity—a covers record as aesthetic argument and stylistic manifesto.

 22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
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“Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” asks Cardi B on a debut album that suggests she’s all these things and more, an envelope-pusher and category-killer whose identity can only ever be all of the above. The big surprises here are how rooted she is in hip-hop orthodoxy, but also how much room to roam she finds within traditional frameworks: Invasion of Privacy bursts at the seams with flows, beats, jokes, vulgarity, empowerment, and defiant autobiography. A rags-to-riches blockbuster for the ages.

21. Room 25 | Noname
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Poet-turned-rapper Fatimah Warner—aka Noname—pours forth speech, joking and tongue-twisting and free-associating a dense web of language where everything, including her black life, matters. Her proper debut, following the radiant Telefone mixtape, is sleek and assured, an album that’s at once precise and all-encompassing.

20. Cusp | Alela Diane
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You wouldn’t even need the fingers on two hands to count the great albums about motherhood, a list to which Cusp immediately belongs. But that’s not the only thing singer/songwriter Alela Diane has on her mind: She uses the particulars of being a mom to wrestle with the broader topic of becoming, how a day or a season in our life can be a threshold for personal change, a catalyst for transformation. Her songs are presented in warm, clean arrangements, their straight lines contrasting with the deep mysteries contained within.

19. See You Around | I’m With Her
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A trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her is about the super-est group imaginable in today’s acoustic scene, and they betray subtle virtuosity throughout their debut album. See You Around reflects a worldview that’s respectful of folk and bluegrass traditions without ever being beholden to them, and the songs are similarly restless, full of characters seeking solid ground through seasons of tumult and transition.

18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
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Mitski’s songs sparkle with clean pop perfection; her easeful way with melody may remind you of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, or even Paul McCartney. She spikes those buoyant tunes with lyrics of quiet desperation. Each song on Be the Cowboy glimpses either an unattainable future or an irretrievable past—alternate realities where, for all these characters know, everything worked out just fine.

17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
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One of our top-tier shredders makes a blessed return to electric mayhem on an album that’s as muscular and direct as any in his corpus. Thompson’s songs don’t so much rage at the dying light as they wrestle with the darkness in his own soul—“the rattle within,” as one song memorably phrases it. The result is a prickly masterwork, a discontented opus from a guru working at his peak.

16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
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On her luminous debut, the Brazilian singer flits from steely hip-hop to dingy New Wave to coy bossa nova; a couple of retro R&B numbers show how easy it would have been for her to fashion this album as a diva’s showcase and a soul revue, but Uchis is far too restless to live in the past. So she’s given us a pancultural pop showstopper that functions as a declaration of independence; her lyrics, about the cost of freedom, remind us that independence and isolation can be two sides of the same coin.

15. Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
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Listen beyond the buzz saw guitars, the pounding pianos, and the relentless kick drums and you’ll hear a bar band of startling sophistication, their brashness and bravado belying depth and sturdy craftsmanship. Or, just pump your fist in the air and get swept along in their crackling, unostentatious energy. A near-perfect jolt of pure rock and roll, Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 is by turns wounded, vulgar, earnest, and hysterical.

14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
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One of the year’s most classicist country albums also happens to be one of its most colorful—at times bordering on being outright bonkers. Neilson tucks into haunted Appalachian ballads, brassy R&B, swaying nightclub reveries, even Vegas-style showstoppers; sometimes she plays it straight, sometimes she revels in double entendres and caustic humor. Throughout, she proves herself a singer of redoubtable power and control, and a writer whose wit is eclipsed only by her compassion.

13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
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Sam Phillips is one of pop’s most daring and resilient excavators; she’s made a career off of digging deep for truth and beauty, and on World on Sticks she rummages through the trash and ephemera of a culture given over to hollow materialism. Fortunately, she is also one of our most gifted melodists, and here powers her elastic tunes with thunderous drums, luxuriant string arrangements, and thrumming electric guitars.

12. Time & Space | Turnstile
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A document of bruising physicality but also big ideas, Time & Space is a galvanizing punk album that jostles with riffs, banshee wails, and headbanging fury. It also nods at Chess Records, branches into pure pop, and augments its hardcore wails with sophisticated harmonies. Diplo shows up to add weird keyboard effects, and it’s not even one of the top 10 most surprising moments on the album. Which is, incidentally, just 23 minutes long, every second packed with white-knuckled exhilaration.

11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
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Monroe, a country singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, has a legitimate claim to 2018’s MVP title; look for her name to show up again on an even higher entry. For Sparrow, Monroe proves once again that she’s unequaled at reimagining country roots and traditions for the present day. Awash with strings, it’s a colorful update on the classic “countrypolitan” sound, its lush orchestrations illuminating the contours of her internal monologues and emotional remembrances.

10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
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The warmest, most humanistic of bands cranks up the electricity for this rangy and roaming opus, jolting their gospel harmonies and brambly folk with punchy rock and roll vigor. While their previous album presaged “real midnight,” this one supposes that it’s already come and gone, and beckons us to pick up the pieces. The whole record plays out like a swift kick in the ass for anyone who thinks they have the luxury of complacency; in a dispiriting year, it was a lighthouse, an oasis, and a life preserver.

09. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
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The worst possible way to celebrate the skewed genius of Thelonious Monk would be with an overly reverent tribute album—and this songbook record by Tim Conley, aka MAST, never even comes close. Instead, he chops, screws, and bedazzles beloved Monk classics, dressing them up with bells and whistles, augmenting them with lurching hip-hop beats, kicking them down a flight of stairs and then ultimately setting fire to them via a crackling live band. The result qualifies as the year’s most bewitching jazz and its most immersive electronica—an album that uses the past as a jumping off point for boundless imagination.

08. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
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An exercise in community and a testament to the redemptive act of singing, This Too Shall Light features songs of joy and sorrow, lifted up in smudged harmony by Helm and her troupe of harmony singers, Birds of Chicago among them. The songs come from disparate sources—Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, The Milk Carton Kids, even Rod Stewart’s immortal “Mandolin Wind” is here—and Helm brings confidence and grace to each one. She is one of our great soul singers, and here she proves herself to be both a keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy and an able blazer of her own new trails.

07. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
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In 2018, no rapper had harder bars than Black Thought, an all-timer who’s just beginning to get his due. For his second solo joint of the year, he offers a head-spinning and endlessly quotable feast of language, nimbly pivoting from self-aggrandizement to sociopolitical arguments to stirring endorsements of the steel-driving work ethic he embodies. Producer Salaam Remi creates warm, funky environments, drawn largely form blaxploitation tropes, giving this GOAT candidate the regal adornment he’s always deserved. Old-head rap executed with such flair, it sounds less like the past than a whole new wave.

06. Historian | Lucy Dacus
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For her second solo album, singer/songwriter/shredder/boygenius member Lucy Dacus writes about romantic dissolution and human frailty—but always from a therapeutic remove: It’s not a break-up album or a death album so much as an album about the stories we tell, the way we make sense of tragedies, the role we play in curating one another’s history. These masterful songs—pitched between emotional acuity and writerly sophistication—are paired to sleek rock arrangements that soar, grind, and erupt as needed.

05. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
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On their first album to feature outside musicians, the folksy duo conjures a loose, borderless Americana that recalls such inclusionary classics as The Basement Tapes and Willie Nelson’s Stardust—all the while retaining the whimsy, melancholy, and close harmonies that make them The Milk Carton Kids. The songs reflect dissolution: Sometimes they’re about wayward nations, sometimes they’re about faithless lovers, and sometimes it seems like it might be a little of both. Like Amy Helm’s record, it was produced by Joe Henry, enjoying a banner year.

04. Honey | Robyn
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In her alluring new suite of songs, recalcitrant Swedish pop star Robyn journeys through heartache, memory, self-inventory, and in the end, defiant hope. She’s always walked a fine line between steeliness and vulnerability, but none of her albums tremble quite like Honey, which features some of her most cracked vocals, her most porous song structures, and her most lovelorn lyrics. It adds up to an immersive song cycle that washes over you, waves of sorrow followed by waves of cathartic joy.

03. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
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Has everything you might want in an Elvis Costello album—unless all you want is loud guitars and paranoid songs about girls, in which case there’s just no helping you. Intricate and tuneful, ornate and direct, Look Now consolidates decades of tutelage in pop songcraft; it has the confidence of a master but the exuberance of a young buck. Its songs—all richly empathetic, most about or from the perspective of women—make it the year’s most rewarding album by a dude.

02. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies

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Finding solidarity in songs of divorce, depression, and quiet desperation, the Pistol Annies emerge with their wisest and funniest album yet. The one thing Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley don’t know how to do is sugarcoat, and Interstate Gospel is bracing for its candor—yet its emotional directness is channeled through childhood remembrances, archetypes, saloon soliloquies, and randy rock and roll; meanwhile, the outlaw dreams of their first couple of albums have blossomed into a more sophisticated American roots milieu, one that’s grounded in tradition but refracted through modernity. In the middle of the worst of it, they’ve made an album that reflects the best in each of them.

01. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
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Festooned though it may be with disco balls and kaleidoscopic sound effects, Golden Hour is a country album through and through. You can hear it in the air, the empty space between Musgraves’ words; and you can hear it in the words themselves, plainspoken even when they’re clever. They’re not clever quite as often as they were on Musgraves’ fine earlier albums—which, it turns out, is perfectly fine. She’s toned down her impish wit for songs of disarming sincerity, perfectly wed to a colorful production palette so visceral, you can almost feel this music on your skin. Musgraves is still enough of a cynic to question her own right to be happy and to wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, yet what dazzles the most about Golden Hour is its sense of awe: Inspired by her new marriage, Musgraves is seduced by hope, surprised by joy, and bowled over by a world of marvels beyond anything she could have imagined. It’s an album about grown-up love and childlike wonder, and a vision of country music as something timeless, borderless, consoling, and fun.