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.

Every Moment to the Letter: Amy Helm sheds light

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The phrase, as you’ve probably heard it, is “this too shall pass”—a promise that hardship is fleeting and trials last only for a season. On a ravishing and resplendent new album called This Too Shall Light, Amy Helm schemes a deeper redemption. Supported by a ragged troupe of harmony singers, she lifts up 10 songs of heartache and grieving, world-weariness and weathered hope. With voices smeared together in messy, unkempt community, Helm and her crew turn private sorrows into shared experiences. Their premise is that the hard times aren’t just here to be gotten through, but actually reclaimed; that the whole of our lived reality (“every moment to the letter”) is kindling for joy and catalyst for illumination. Or, if nothing else, as good a reason as any to get together and sing.

This is only the second album Helm has released under her own name, but it reveals the sure-footedness of a veteran. The years and miles she logged with her band Ollabelle are etched into this loose and lived-in set, a community sing-along that casually intermingles gospel, soul, rock, and folk idioms, all of it sparkling with first-take immediacy and the thrill of shared discovery. Helm convened quick, unfussy recording sessions with producer Joe Henry, who’s in the midst of a banner year (see also: Steep Canyon Rangers, Joan Baez, The Milk Carton Kids). It’s a synergistic pairing: Henry has an unbeatable track record in coaxing pantheon-level performances from powerhouse singers, and Helm is one of our best. She can write, too, but here aligns herself with the interpretive singing tradition, and she and Henry connected over songs that are perfectly pitched for achieving the desired tenor of hard-won hopefulness. One wonders how long Henry kept The Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan” in his back pocket before deciding Helm was the right vessel for its desolation and resolve; or how cathartic it was for her to lift up Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion” as a prayer for clarity in an era of murk. The ace in the hole is Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind,” not only because it’s one of the greatest songs of all time nor even because it connects the album to the tattered emotion and earthy romance of Rod’s Every Picture…/Never a Dull Moment prime. It’s the album’s beating heart because of how it sneaks up on you: Its protagonist endures coldest winter and darkest night before being surprised by joy, heartened by love’s durability. It embodies the album’s dogged optimism and tested perseverance.

Henry’s go-to engineering guru, Ryan Freeland, captured these loose sessions in all their rafter-shaking power and clarity. It sounds as immediate and as visceral as any album they’ve made together. You can make out every popped snare and rattled tambourine from Jay Bellerose in crackling detail; follow Jennifer Condos’ limber bass as it snakes through the clamor of voices; get lost in the woolly hum of Tyler Chester’s organ and keys. But in an album about singing as a work of redemption, the harmonists are the ones who come in clutch. They include Adam Minkoff along with—crucially—Allison Russell and JT Nero, better known as Birds of Chicago. The most warmly humanistic of bands, their geniality and deep harmonies color everything they lay a hand to. Helm’s miniature cloud of witnesses imbues even the most hardscrabble songs with the lilt of compassion. Listen to how they sow little eruptions of joy through the tough-as-nails title track, a lithe groove where Doyle Bramhall’s electric guitar squalls fade into snapped fingers. And hear them in “Michigan,” all but underwater in dashed romance and Chester’s organ wash—until the chorus comes, roaring in celebration at the freedom to just belt it at top volume.

Community is a big part of what the album’s about, and Helm’s sense of belonging reaches back beyond what’s visible, encompassing even the ancestors. She’s a keeper of the flame, a singer who holds lineage close to her heart—not least the lineage of her legendary father, Levon Helm. His confederate Robbie Robertson has a writing credit here, as Helm swings and swaggers through a wonderfully sweaty R&B number called “The Stones I Throw,” a relic of Levon & The Hawks’ days lighting up bars. But if Helm is buoyed by heritage, she’s not beholden to it; her aim isn’t to live in the past but to remake it in her own image, something she does on a read of Henry’s song “Odetta” (a literal invocation of the ancestors). The original recording featured a high-stepping gospel piano motif, which here spills its sanctified ebullience all over a boisterous bridge; Helm holds it aloft by her own solemn authority.

This Too Shall Light concludes with two songs that tie it all together. First is T-Bone Burnett’s “River of Love,” haunted when Sam Phillips sang it on her album The Turning but quietly hopeful here; the song sparkles as Helm follows the rivers of grief and struggle, truth and belief back to the origin points, reassured that they were running long before she got here and they’ll keep running long after she leaves. The final song is an acapella read of the traditional “Gloryland,” wonderfully rough and craggy, with an arrangement credit shared between Helm and her father. Here there’s light shed even in death, the true end of suffering and sadness. Those who’ve gone to Heaven shall weep no more, the song promises; and for those of us still breathing, at least we have something to sing about.

Rooted and Restless: Acoustic travelogues from Steep Canyon Rangers, I’m With Her

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American folk music is rife with restlessness; its backroads and byways are well-trod by lonesome hobos and wayfaring strangers; by ramblers, drifters, lovers and leavers. On two new albums, restlessness is both a theme and an aesthetic. Steep Canyon Rangers’ Out in the Open and I’m With Her’s See You Around are both travelogues, full of weary and weathered but ultimately hopeful songs about change, transition, and movin’ on. And, both albums embody roots music idioms while also subtly pushing at the boundaries. These records are respectful of tradition without ever being beholden to it; they are eager to offer an expansive and subtly progressive take on familiar forms.

Few bands have done more to expand bluegrass’ cultural cache than the Rangers, a fleet-fingered North Carolina troupe now well-decorated for their work in support of Steve Martin. Martin doesn’t appear anywhere on Out in the Open, which means there’s more air time for singer/guitar player Woody Platt and singer/banjoist Graham Sharp. It also means there’s room in the fold for another renaissance man, this time producer Joe Henry, who’s got an extensive track record working with artists who both embody and elaborate the grammar of folk music. (Give a listen to his albums with Hayes Carll and Joan Baez, among others.) Henry gives the Rangers room to roam, which happens to be one of the things bluegrass is really great for: On up-tempo songs with locomotive rhythms, the Rangers sound like they’re racing into open horizons, sketching the invisible boundaries of an untamed frontier. “Let Me Out of This Town,” the most locomotive of the bunch, is the jittery confession of a man bursting to escape from small-town monotony, set to a frenzy of banjo notes that sound like a train hellbent on careening off the tracks. Escape isn’t an option for the narrator in “Can’t Get Home,” a deceptively rollicking tune about a soldier imprisoned in his own memories. Songs like these and “Roadside Anthems”—where nimble mandolin work weaves through galloping banjo and loping fiddle—offer familiar bluegrass pyrotechnics, speed and virtuosity in service of melodic purity. Yet there are just as many moments that prove how pliable bluegrass orthodoxy can be. A campfire lullaby called “Going Midwest”—where a man packs his bags and says goodbye to everything he’s ever known—is carried by acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies; it’s spectral and spare, singer/songwriter introspection that recalls no one more than The Milk Carton Kids. The title song, a rickety construction of puffed harmonica and steady-thumping kick drums, is a shambolic delight, sounding like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing but staying upright through sheer whimsy and will. Its good-natured goofiness is eclipsed only by “Shenandoah Valley,” where the Rangers slow things down considerably for a bit of old-timey soft-shoe, rhapsodizing about a romantic dalliance with the power to stop time.

These are all subtle shake-ups that reveal a musical tradition in constant dialog with itself, in service of songs that grope for solid ground in a world gone topsy-turvy. “Farmers and Pharaohs” is a mirrored hall of romantic regrets, given folksy flourishes by Nicky Sander’s swooping fiddle. “I learned the hard way/ Now it’s too late/ If I could take back that very day,” the song goes, and you hardly need the clause completed: It’s the worst moment of a man’s life, captured in amber, a talisman and a mile-marker born of wisdom and rue. Similarly, “When She Was Mine” tells one of the oldest stories in the world, and it tells it all right there in its title. The ringer in the bunch is “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” a Dylan cast-off-turned-standard, here adorned with mossy harmonies that make it sound ancient. It’s a soldier’s windswept lament; he knows he can’t escape death, but at least he can go out with dignity. He fits in well on Out in the Open, an album that ennobles tradition by leaning into change.

The same could be said of See You Around, the debut album from I’m With Her, just about the super-est group imaginable within today’s acoustic roots scene. A working unit since 2014, the all-ladies band is so named for their embrace of collaboration and camaraderie, values they uphold throughout this ego-free set. The group—Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan—discovered an easy chemistry through back-stage jams at various concert halls and festivals; wrote the lion’s share of their album together, save for a stray Gillian Welch cover; and convened with producer Ethan Johns, who gives the album a clean, spare production—mostly just voice, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle— that leaves them no room to hide. (So unembellished is the production, the introduction of electric fuzz in “I-89” feels just slightly less disruptive than Jack White’s adoption of a bass line in “Seven Nation Army,” all those years ago.) Rather than embalming the album in austerity, though, Johns’ tidiness highlights the band’s sophistication and allure—the melodic precision and emotional acuity in their songs; the casualness with which they blend bluegrass, folk, and country traditions; and the way the three of them only ever sound like one person, whether trading verses or harmonizing together. If the Steep Canyon Rangers are a band built for speed and showmanship, I’m With Her trades in sly seduction—songs that are winsome both in their earthiness and in their seamless virtuosity. Listen to how “Game to Lose” rises from doleful, fiddle-led verses to a hard-strummed, staccato chorus, reminiscent of the progressive string band music Watkins innovated in her Nickel Creek days; or, to the hazy hypnosis in “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” a loping and languid tryst that turns southern sultriness into something atmospheric and enticing.

See You Around—its very title suggesting movement and separation—is a scrapbook of stories, many of them involving travel and transition. It’s an appropriately frayed collection, full of loose ends and spritely invention—consider the weightless harmonies that hold “Wild One” aloft, or the easygoing spontaneity of “Waitsfield,” an instrumental rag—yet it also feels like it adds up to something complete, a lifetime of experience and regret, seen from a vantage point that’s clear-eyed without being callous. World-weariness fleshes out even the most archetypical tales: “Overland” is a railroad song that finds relief in the turned page: “Oh I’ve lived through more than I could tell/ I’ve sold all that I could sell/ Finally leaving it behind, goodbye, farewell.” And it’s not the only wayfaring tune here; “I-89,” built from layers of delicate picking and wheezing blues, imagines wanderlust as a survival instinct: “If there was another way out I’d take it/ If there was another way down I’d go.” Feminine agency animates romantic arrangements of all varieties, even as the songs reflect just how much these entanglements change and shape us: “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” is about a dalliance in the orchard, told with just the right blend of discretion and lustiness, while “Close it Down” is about a barroom fling with a married man, one in which both parties see things for what they are, and even extend empathy to the wife who’s back home. And then there’s “Ain’t That Fine,” a song of experience that’s all about accepting mistakes and moving on, told with wistful humor (“I can’t believe the things I put my mother through”) and hard-won contentment (“Some folks have it better/ But oh, we’ve got it good”). There are bruises aplenty here, but I’m With Her never stops to count them: See You Around is concerned with the events that push us forward, not the ones that hold us back; it’s a document of evolution, and the travelogue of pilgrims making progress.

Make Me Another Promise: The Milk Carton Kids sing American tunes

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At 14 words, All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do is an album title calling out for a shorthand. Consider a helpful phrase from the accompanying press release, “waltzing into disaster,” which captures well the album’s spirit of whimsy and foreboding. Its dozen songs, clear-eyed and bruised, reflect an older, more weathered version of The Milk Carton Kids, hobbling forward in the wake of disasters both personal and cultural. It’s an album whose margins are haunted by remembrances of runaway lovers and a nation that’s all but vanished; its narrators still remember how thing used to be, and sigh in the opening lines: “Just look at us now.” And, it’s an album that dreams a highway through the backwoods and byways of American folk song, employing canonical forms for their emotional directness and uncluttered sense of narrative. These are—to borrow another recently-popular title—songs of experience, tattered but true.

The Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, both of whom play acoustic guitar, sing in close, single-mic harmonies, and dodge comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel (and also Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings) that have never felt quite right; as songwriters, Ryan and Pattengale are engaged with an older school of parlor songs and soft-shoe routines that convey deep melancholy through wistful, romantic melodies. These new songs of experience, all of them originals, are their best work to date, conveying the emotional acuity and formal control of the great American songbook. They are plainspoken, and they contain multitudes. “Mourning in America,” a state of the union in the Rhymin’ Simon vein, reflects political dislocation through street-level detail and a sense of mundane weariness; “You Break My Heart” is a song about every heartbreak, even though it was pretty clearly written about a particular one.

This is the first Milk Carton Kids album to be recorded with outside musicians, and to guide them through this new adventure Ryan and Pattengale enlisted Joe Henry, a producer who’s developed a strong catalog of albums that wring spontaneity and joyful abandon from hallowed folk forms (for examples, see his work with Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville, or his own recent Thrum). Henry presided over Nashville sessions that brought in a rich cast of supporting players. Levon Henry’s clarinet snakes through the fleet-footed “Younger Years,” while Russ Pahl’s pedal steel sounds like a high-and-lonesome train whistle in the background. Brittany Haas’ fiddle leads off “Big Time,” something like a last waltz crossed with a barn-burning hootenanny. Spectral, lovelorn ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You” have their edges frayed by ghostly piano and steel guitar, while “Blindness,” a haunted house of a song, seems to be dissolving as it plays, an apparition fading back into shadow. There are subtly cinematic effects in every song here, and none as good as the harmonies of the Milk Carton Kids themselves; the genius of this record is how it broadens their scope while maintaining the centrality of their chemistry. It never doesn’t sound like a Milk Carton Kids album.

The result is an album that takes cues from some of the ramshackle myth-making of The Basement Tapes; the well-worn, second-hand Americana of Gram Parsons; the casual virtuosity with which Willie Nelson synthesizes roadhouse roots into something seamless and supple, with Pattengale’s ragged lead guitar ably filling in for Trigger. The album’s centerpiece is “One More for the Road,” an impressionistic epic that stretches Sinatra’s wee-small-hours desolation across the broader canvas of the American frontier, a saloon song by way of a campfire rag.  “Nothing is Real” is weary juke joint R&B, swaying in place to its dawning disillusionment. “Younger Years” recalls the wispy cowboy songs of Marty Robbins, while “You Break My Heart” is a lovelorn standard, thread-bear ruminations from a spectral Cole Porter. “I’ve Been Loving You” marries songbook formalism to country twang so ably, it sounds as though it should have been included on Stardust.

The songs were born of fracture and chaos—break-ups and relocations, health scares and a declining national mood. They sound suitably beleaguered and wary in their evocations of wayward countries and faithless lovers, and it is occasionally hard to tell whether a given line is meant to reflect personal crisis or the broader tragedies unfolding around us. (For that particular synthesis, there remains no better model than Joe Henry’s 2007 album Civilians, a singular songwriting achievement of such elegant and alluring metaphors, it can’t help but be seminal for younger writers like Ryan and Pattengale.) “Just Look at Us Now,” chronicles the curdling of youthful idealism: “We wanted to prove we were something, we were special/ We knew in our hearts we weren’t the only ones,” the song goes, and it could just as easily be a story of fated lovers or of an exceptional empire’s slow crumble. “Make me another promise if you dare,” Ryan sings, hard-won skepticism from someone who’s been through the ringer. “Mourning in America” allows for less ambivalence, capturing a disheartened trudge through an atmosphere of malaise. Later, when Ryan and Pattengale sing “I’ve been loving you all wrong,” it could be either the patriot’s boondoggle or the fool’s sad revelation; either way, they sing it like it’s too little, too late. “Unwinnable War” imagines love as a battlefield, though there’s always the outside chance it’s just about the battlefield as a battlefield; even “Big Time,” ostensibly a party jam, masks a menacing eschatology: “This’ll be the last time/ we’re gonna have a big time.”

These are all familiar lessons from the Songbook, learned anew with each new generation: The times, they change. Things fall apart. We come, in the age’s most uncertain hour, singing American tunes. The Milk Carton Kids end their album with a great one. “All the Things…,” performed by Pattengale with haunting vulnerability, is a divorce song, written from a place of reflection and regret. But for its bridge, the spare arrangement suddenly breaks open into a full-color dream sequence, Ryan joining in and the two of them daring to imagine something like peace and reconciliation. They sound like they know they’re not the first to wake up and find their house in shambles; to lift up a song for better days.

Another Mutilated World: A swan song from Joan Baez

On Whistle Down the Wind, intended as the curtain call of a legendary recording career, Joan Baez says goodbye—all the while acknowledging that it’s never quite that easy. Think of the poet Adam Zagajewski, who exhorts us to “praise the mutilated world.” And think of Mary Oliver, who writes: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” The songs on Whistle Down the Wind are love songs to a mutilated world and a beleaguered humanity, their weariness and valor resonating as much today as they would have at any given point in Baez’ recording life. But love songs they remain: In her trembling read of Anhoni’s “Another World,” a throbbing and delicate album highlight, Baez sounds like she’s stepping onto a train and already regretting her departure; she can’t articulate her search for a better world and a higher plane without rhapsodizing about this one. “I’m gonna miss the birds/ Singing all their songs/ I’m gonna miss the wind/ Been kissing me so long,” she sighs, holding fast to the mortal world in all its ephemerality and imperfection, still the surest thing she’s ever known. Or, as Baez sings on the Tom Waits- and Kathleen Brennan-penned title song: “I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave.”

Baez has spent her whole life hymning the mutilated world, and mutilated it will remain even once she sings her last. Maybe that’s what she means by titling the album after a gesture of transience; maybe it’s an acknowledgement that, after decades spent singing against war and desolation, she’s ending her recording career with a song called “I Wish the Wars Were Over,” because of course they’re not. But the record’s deep melancholy waters her hard-won hopefulness, weathered and in full bloom: Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction,” the closest this album gets to a jaunt, imagines the day when the walls of Jericho crumble, a camel passes through the eye of a needle, and the darkest hour gives way at last to dawn. Nobody said any of this would be easy, and so a Josh Ritter composition exhorts us to “Be of Good Heart.” That same song voices a humility born of experience: “I never claimed to know it all,” she sings, summarizing decades spent bearing witness. “All I know is what I’ve known.” And there is resilience, too. Waits’ “Last Leaf”—originally done as a barroom lament with soul survivor Keith Richards—is notably more forceful here. Baez imagines herself a leaf that’s weathered every winter since Eisenhower; she’ll make room for the new shoots of green, but she won’t let go—not yet.

The risk with an album like this—intended as a last will and testament, reckoning with a world that’s in roughly the same shambles she found it in—is austerity. It was produced by Joe Henry, who is singularly gifted at working with septa- and octogenarian artists to generate works that expand their legacies, rather than Cliff Note them. He and Baez address the concern of an insular and self-serious album by steering straight into it, laying all their cards on the table: There aren’t many jokes here and no song that qualifies as a lark; just song after song that burrows deep into earnestness and empathy. It earns our trust through its candor and its sincerity; its cumulative effect is total disarmament.

Whistle Down the Wind stands among the most genteel Joe Henry productions; his inclination toward first-take immediacy, which summoned elegant swing on his Allen Toussaint sessions and hard-boiled grit on his work with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, manifests here as gentleness. Drummer Jay Bellerose, whose rolling thunder is a hallmark of Henry’s production work, mostly offers gentle thumps and cymbal accents. Baez, John Smith, and Greg Leisz join acoustic guitars into a blur of finger-picked melody, while Patrick Warren’s piano and pump organ surface with crystalline romance. “Whistle Down the Wind” sounds at once earthy and windswept, born of this world but no longer tethered to it. “Another World” is skeletal and pulsing, Baez standing ragged and unsure at the song’s center.

She trusts the warmth and sadness of these songs to shine through, and they do. Baez sings with too much affection for any of these songs to lapse into cynicism, and too much weariness for any of them to sound like celebration. And so she is caught between this mutilated world and another, better one she can’t quite imagine; she’ll cling to this until she can’t, and then she’ll let go. In the meantime, Baez leaves us with a Zoe Mulford song called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” set in the wake of the Charleston church shooting: “But no words could say what must be said/ For all the living and the dead/ So on that day and in that place/ The President sang Amazing Grace.” To sing in the face of sorrow is an amazing grace, indeed; a tender mercy that only a broken world can allow.