Kamasi Washington, “Heaven and Earth”
Washington has proven to be an unclassifiable asset, both in his own name and as a contributor to Kendrick Lamar’s albums, including the Pulitzer-winning “DAMN.” This second three-CD set in three years (which encompasses the “hidden” EP “The Choice”) demonstrates the tenor saxophonist’s towering ambition and further breaks down the boundaries of jazz and hip-hop.
Alejandro Escovedo, “The Crossing”
Active now for 40 years, singer-songwriter-guitarist Escovedo has evolved from punk rabble-rouser to one of Americana’s fiercest and most elegant storytellers. In its scope and personal conviction, this latest work – a stirring and impassioned consideration of the contemporary immigrant’s plight, drawn straight from the headlines – bears comparison to his 2002 family musical drama “By the Hand of the Father.”
Chris Price, “Dalmatian”
Following up on 2017’s stellar “Stop Talking,” this virtuosic L.A. pop maestro again demonstrates his astonishing abilities as singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer and arranger. If you’re looking for a successor to Brian Wilson, look no further.
Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer”
Here is an artist in full command of her vision. To be sure, Monae has a superior role model in Prince, but over the course of her brief career she has developed a sure hand of her own. From her startling speculative fiction concept to its multi-media execution (cf. the full-length video), she staked out terrain uniquely her own.
Courtney Marie Andrews, “May Your Kindness Remain”
She has been recording for a decade, but Andrews finally made her mark this year with her sixth album, which showed off her remarkable gifts as a singer and author of beautifully crafted, stingingly sung roots-based originals. It’s an arrival that bespeaks even greater things to come.
Bettye Lavette, “Things Have Changed”
One of the great soul singers performs a recital of smartly selected Bob Dylan songs – how could I resist a record so completely in my wheelhouse? Steve Jordan’s full-bodied drumming and knowing production totally nailed down the groove.
Ry Cooder, “The Prodigal Son”
The veteran singer-guitarist offered up a terrific return to form after a series of somewhat murky concept albums. This heavily gospel-based package, drawing heavily on songs by such century-old precursors as Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. Robert Wilkins, served up a deep soul kick, and Cooder’s best singing ever.
Divine Weeks, “We’re All We Have”
After more than three decades of under-appreciated work in the punk trenches of L.A., this skilled quartet bid farewell to the scene with a set that, as vocalist Bill See notes on one track, wears its heart on its sleeve. An unabashedly — yet never obviously political — cycle of songs about showing love in the face of darkness, the album might be alternately titled “Songs to Survive the Current Administration By.”
John Coltrane, “Both Directions at Once”
Finally liberated from the vault after 55 years, this amazing “lost” session, only one track of which was previously circulated, finds a jazz giant and his greatest combo of the early ‘60s in full creative flower.
Bobbie Gentry, “The Girl From Chickasaw County”
Archival release of the year. Not even singer-songwriter Gentry’s biggest fans, of which I am one, had any reason to expect that this comprehensive and superbly annotated six-CD boxed set of her complete work would ever exist. The spectacular package proves that there was much, much more to her art than her landmark country-pop 1967 crossover hit “Ode to Billie Joe.”