- Elvis Costello & the Imposters, “Look Now” (Concord)
There are other Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who are Costello’s songwriting equal — blokes named Bob and Bruce come to mind — but none who’ve maintained such a consistently high level of lyrical and melodic invention over four decades or more. As a record-maker, Costello had pretty much skipped out on quality studio time for the last 10 of those 40 years, focusing instead on touring and still-unproduced stage musicals. But now that he’s back in album mode, all those detours factor into what makes “Look Now” great, from the detailed theatricality of the storytelling to the well-honed precision and swing of the Imposters’ playing. He’s getting Bacharach-to-basics here, in a way — Burt co-wrote three tracks, and it feels like he was a spiritual advisor on some others — but the band’s presence makes it much less genteel than “Painted from Memory.” Think peak-era Dionne Warwick with sharper teeth and a savvy, rocking pit band, and you’ll have an idea of how much sophisticated fun Costello’s comeback is.
- Brandi Carlile, “By the Way, I Forgive You” (Low Country Sound/Elektra)
It’s no slight against any of the other superb records on this list to say that Carlile’s sixth album might have more heart than the rest of them combined. Music that’s this deeply emotional as well as this smart doesn’t come along every year, which is why it wasn’t a complete surprise that Carlile just picked up six Grammy nominations. At least it wasn’t to those of us who knew that, even though there wasn’t that much to go on in her awards history, a critical mass had formed in the music industry around Carlile as somebody already renowned for being a singer’s singer… and a writer of unusual grace, smarts and sensitivity, on top of the Chops to Die For. Producer Dave Cobb helped her find her sweet spot, or a bunch of them, actually, from the acoustic arena anthem “Hold Out Your Hand,” which out-Mumfords Mumford, to the Joni-esque “Party of One.” (I won’t go so far as to claim that one out-Mitchells Mitchell.) “The Joke,” an underdog anthem in the mode of her original breakout belter, “The Story,” was the single that put her back on the media map. But the most amazing track here was “The Mother”; surely there have been songs this good written about becoming a parent, but I can’t remember any.
- Lucius, “Nudes” (Mom + Pop Music)
If you take a chance on just one blind buy from 2018, make it this one. Lucius may be the least famous name among the acts on this list, though the recognition factor grows if you put up a picture of the two icy-looking singers in their twin blonde wigs; they’re a familiar sight from backing up Roger Waters and other major artists on tour. Spread the news: They’re even better as songwriters than they are wailing “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig don’t just spend part of their time together harmonizing — that’s all they do, and there’s nary a lone lead vocal to be found on “Nudes,” which, true to its title, puts their spectacular singing in stark, mostly acoustic relief. Along with their two male cohorts in the band, they cover Tame Impala, Gerry Rafferty and Lead Belly. It’s the startlingly good originals, though, that knock you out, putting the sweetest female harmony singing you’ll ever hear to use on fascinating little sketches of domestic turmoil.
- Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour”(MCA Nashville)
The year 2018 did not produce any better song than “Slow Burn,” an opening track that served as a statement of intent to start an album that you wanted to spend 46 minutes smoking down to the roach. However literally applicable Musgraves’ metaphor may have also been, it was an apt one for taking an unhurried approach to life that allows for a greater appreciation of love, friends, food, family and — why not? — terrific records by country singers who are slowly figuring out the next phase of their careers. Under the influence of new producers, a new husband and probably a powerful buzz, Musgraves threw out most of her throwback-country leanings and mordant wit for a more earnest set of songs that mix electronic leanings with finger-picky folk. Do we miss the campy social commentary of her previous records? Maybe slightly, but it’s more than made up for when Musgraves is delivering what might be the year’s most legitimately romantic. Bliss, she understands, is nothing to bogart.
- Father John Misty, “God’s Favorite Customer” (Sub Pop)
The artist formerly known as Josh Tillman made a rapid-fire follow-up to 2017’s “Pure Comedy,” and this year’s effort didn’t get quite as much acclaim or attention, even though it holds up as the slightly superior of two back-to-back keepers. Maybe his prolific-ness induced Father John fatigue? Or maybe critics appreciated the epic, intellectual stream of consciousness of “Comedy” so much that they couldn’t see how what he pulled off in this simpler and more emotional “heartbreak album” was at least as difficult as its predecessor’s head trip. But for those of us who value writing with as few filters as possible, “Customer” feels like the album in which Misty transforms back into Tillman at last, in everything other than nom de plume. From all indications he had a long weekend, as the saying goes, and lived to tell the tale of checking out on relationships and sobriety and into a dark night of the soul. Or maybe it’s all another construction, but it sure feels like true confessions time. And the fact that, in the midst of this depression, he’s finally, fully getting his Elton John on? That’s something to get happy about.
- Pistol Annies, “Interstate Gospel” (RCA Nashville)
Two qualities that country music purged from the mainstream many years ago — abject sorrow and rollicking gallows humor — returned with a feminist vengeance in the third and best album from the super-trio of Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe. Go for the irreverence, and stay for the earnestness, in the best pure country album of 2018. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone, least of all myself, the LOL moments in “Got My Name Changed Back” or “Stop, Drop and Roll One.” But ornery hilarity turns to honest heartbreak in cry-out-loud numbers like “5 Acres of Turnips” and “Leavers Lullaby.” And there’s practically an entire feminist-studies PhD thesis embedded in “Milkman,” a bittersweet look at the moral, behavioral and generational divides between mothers and daughters. Beneath the rowdy mask, these are three women who are deeply reflective about… being rowdy.
- Ariana Grande, “Sweetener” (Republic)
There was a time, believe it or not, kids, when the Grammys existed largely to reward incredibly popular and talented divas who sold boatloads of their hugely enjoyable and frankly personal records. Unfortunately, that era has come to an end, and while we can applaud a lot of the choices made in this year’s nominations, we are also left to wonder WTF is wrong when perfectly great bestsellers by Taylor Swift, Pink, Camila Cabello and, yes, Grande are pushed to the margins with one or two minor nominations each. Okay, rant over. Before the surprise single “Thank U, Next,” we were thanking Grande for “Sweetener,” a deliciously eclectic stew of hyped-up hip-hop and traditional R&B balladry with an innate intelligence that proved she’s more than just the sum of her chops. She had a fantastic tag team of producers, including Pharrell Williams for the lighter-than-air delights, and Max Martin for the heavier ballads. Among the latter was “God is a Woman,” which you could see as a pretty serious statement of hubris on behalf of an entire gender. But she was onto something there: With songs this good, we’d follow her anywhere, religiously.
- Jack White, “Boarding House Reach” (Third Man/Columbia)
White is not someone who likes to stay in the same sonic space for too long, so it’s not surprising that he didn’t carry on in the rootsy Americana vein of his last record, “Lazaretto.” But no one could have predicted how far off the reservation he’d go this time around. “Boarding House Reach” proved to be a deeply polarizing album among the faithful, but to these ears, it was a complete gas — not his best album, mind you, but his giddiest and most garrulously fun. An anything-goes grab bag of funk, prog, poetry, trip-hop, goofy sermonizing, Beefheart-ian digressions and (of course) vocal shrieking and guitar shredding had the cumulative effect of making rock ‘n’ roll seem fun again, for a minute.
- Lily Allen, “No Shame” (Capitol)
Extreme candor, meet ear candy. “No Shame” was raw a record as we got this year, even if Allen’s calm tone and heavily programmed production were the surface picture of pop refinement. Her sweet voice was always her best ammo, weaponized to take down the fools she didn’t suffer gladly. Hearing her now turn that tart, dulcet dagger of a tongue around on herself made for a bracing listen. Most of the tracks had to do with the marital split since her last record, so “No Shame” came squarely in the tradition of a lot of other great divorce albums. Except that, as tough as Marvin Gaye was on his ex in “Here, My Dear,” that’s how tough Allen was on herself. Naturally, she seemed all the more lovable for it.
- Cécile McLoran Salvant, “The Window” (Mack Avenue)
The 21st century is not as terrible time to be a jazz singing fan as we once might have feared, at least not with McLorin Salvant around. If you’re still stuck thinking jazz vocals are the politest of all genres, “The Window” is a good place to start in correcting that notion: It’s about as punk-rock as an album with songs from the Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Cy Coleman catalogs can get. There’s a welcome sense of danger not just to her unpredictable dynamics but to the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride that is the work of pianist Sullivan Fortner, who, from the audible evidence, may be certifiably insane, in a good way. He deserves equal billing here, as this album is equal parts vocal and piano and nothing else, as opposed to her other, more orchestrated efforts. Also pulling from the obscure parts of the songbooks of everyone from Edith Piaf to Aretha Franklin, “The Window” is a concept album about romantic obsession that has the effect of making you obsessed with the pair of great talents who made it.
- Camila Cabello, “Camila” (Epic)
For pop enthusiasts, the year got off to an unexpectedly rousing start in the second week of January, when Cabello’s solo debut came out and turned out to be full of songs that were even better than “Havana,” the career-maker she rode into 2018 on. We might’ve expected her to be more alpha-female than the ladies she’d left behind in Fifth Harmony, but instead she presented herself as America’s Cuban-American sweetheart, vulnerable (“Consequences”), besotted (“Never Be the Same”), frisky (“Into It”) and seemingly guileless. Truth be told, “She Loves Control” is probably an autobiographical statement, but it was a smart move to give over as much as she did to producer Frank Dukes, who literally or figuratively pushed all the right buttons at a make-or-break point in a young career.
- Ashley McBryde, “Girl Going Nowhere” (Atlantic)
Easily the mainstream country freshman of the year, at least as far as critics were concerned, McBryde was the cross between Melissa Etheridge, Gretchen Wilson and Brandy Clark we hadn’t realized we needed: a big-voiced, tatted-up rabble-rouser who’s the farthest thing from shy onstage and also not shy about name-checking Townes Van Zandt in a song. She had about as much luck breaking the logjam for incoming women at country radio as anybody else; “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” clearly one of the best singles in the genre in 2018, peaked at No. 30 — woo-hoo! That’s okay. Her album title withstanding, McBryde is clearly going somewhere, even if it’s just into our hearts, for years to come.
- I’m With Her, “See You Around” (Rounder)
There’s a recurring theme in this top 20, though it’s purely by happenstance: the prevalence of female superduos (Lucius) and supergroups (Pistol Annies). I’m With Her, the teaming of Americana favorites Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, are also a harmony nerd’s dream. Their debut as a trio always kept you on your toes: You never knew when one, two or all three would be singing, or what stringed thing they’d be busting out as multiple multi-instrumentalists would be busting out. The closest comparison might be Gillian Welch, but with obviously more strength in numbers and more nervous energy. They could make acoustic music feel like rock ‘n’ roll, with the harsh dynamics of “Game to Lose,” but other songs felt like deep, bittersweet mysteries, caught up somewhere L.A., Appalachia and the afterworld.
- Leon Bridges, “Good Thing” (Columbia)
Bridges had emerged as a sort of Sam Cooke revivalist on his debut album, but a change was gonna come for this sophomore set, which found him moving on up from the sweet soul of the early ‘60s to the funkier stuff of the ‘70s. At times, “Good Thing” seems like a misnomer for “Good Times,” since on at least a couple of occasions, it threatens to turn into a full-on Chic tribute record. But this isn’t to say that Bridges is merely trying on a different vintage suit. There are truly contemporizing touches to what he’s doing, too, so that it really does feel like he’s part of Bruno Mars’ generation and not James Brown’s. Still, for everyone who says they don’t make ‘em like they used to, this was an opportunity to have the lie put to that and say: “I feel ‘Good.'”
- Muse, “Simulation Theory (Super Deluxe)” (Warner Bros.)
In the streaming age, there’s more opportunity to put out alternate takes and other ephemera from the creation of an album, and that’s what Muse did with their first album in three years: Why wait 20 years to do a “super deluxe” expansion of an album when Spotify has room for all those outtakes now? (There is a pricey boxed set of this expanded Muse package, too, but for most fans, it will live online.) But here’s the thing: The band gave their more interested fans a second version of nearly the entire album…. and these “alternate universe” tracks are more eclectic and satisfying than the standard version of the record. The normal edition of “Simulation” is not bad, but it’s so electronics-heavy that it really does feel a bit like a computer-generated version of a great Muse album. In the alternate version, though, they use the same songs to experiment with an orchestra, a gospel choir, even the UCLA marching band… and suddenly these bonuses are sounding like one of Muse’s best albums.
- St. Vincent, “MassEducation” (Loma Vista)
Speaking of complete alternative versions of albums, Muse is not alone in the concept, although St. Vincent waited a year to put hers out. “MassEducation” takes the massively produced songs from 2017’s “Masseduction” (try typing those look-alike titles in succession) and recasts them as exercises in only voice and piano. It could come off as show-offy — in the great “look, ma, no bells and whistles” “MTV Unplugged” tradition — but St. Vincent’s material really does demand to be heard at least partly in such stark relief. With her accompanist sometimes plucking the piano strings from the inside, like a guitar, “MassEducation” almost sounds more grandiose than like some kind of back-to-roots fare. And our veneration continues.
- Janelle Monáe, “Dirty Computer” (Bad Boy)
“Everything is sex, ’cept sex, which is power,” sings Monae — and by that definition, let’s just say that she comes off as very, very powerful on “Dirty Computer.” By now just about everyone who follows music knows how indebted this album is to Prince, starting with the title, and culminating in “Make Me Feel,” a song that borrows its title from Michael Jackson but everything else, pretty much, from “Kiss.” Would it be heretical to say that, when you’re caught up in its pleasures, “Make Me” feels even better than the Prince classic she ripped it off from Of course, Prince had a strange relationship with women, and Monae is out to recast and redeem that by making an utterly gynocentric album. (“Pynk” is not about the hot dog stand.) It’s sexuality for its own sake, but also, in her own sci-fi concept-album tradition, as well as Prince’s flirtations with apocalyptic imagery, it’s sexuality as a hedge against the dystopian. Whether or not it all adds up, Monae is nothing if not one pink-hot record-maker.
- The Milk Carton Kids, “All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do” (Anti-/Epitaph)
There’s been a lot of celebration in this list already of the art of female harmonizing, but on rarer occasions these days we find lads who want to indulge in those kind of faux-blood harmonies, too. No contemporary male duo does it like the Milk Carton Kids, who bring in their individual singer/songwriter perspectives and then turn each tune into a true, two-man effort, each partner playing Simon to the other’s Garfunkel, and vice versa. On “All the Things…” they deal frankly with the psychic repercussions with disturbances in their respective forces — a traumatic breakup, a a cancer scare — as well as the maladies that currently afflict us all (“Mourning in America”). Previously, they’d stuck to an acoustic duo format and sung around one vintage microphone, as the aforementioned Lucius and I’m With Her often do. But for this album, the Kids went electric and added a band, and it has a freeing effect on an album that’s dealing with some lyrical shackles. What hasn’t changed is the sublimity of those two voices together, united as a front against the sense of aloneness with which they and every single listener must grapple.
- Eric Church, “Desperate Man” (EMI Nashville)
In the realm of country music, it’s easy to think of Church as a man’s man, with all the swagger that phrase might conjure — but, all importantly, he’s never, ever a bro. Part of his strength was always how much he recalled a classic country dude like Waylon Jennings, but letting that outlaw bit get out of hand threatened to box him in a little, too. On “Desperate Man,” more than any of his previous albums, you feel Church turning into some other great ‘70s country guys, too; I hear a lot of the gentle and wry Tom T. Hall in him these days. But “Desperate Man” is really like a mix tape that draws in from influences of that era outside the genre, too, from the James Gang to Don McLean. It’s throwback-y, but bears such a personal stamp in a world of cookie-cutter male competitors, that it still feels like Church is moving country forward. When women take over the format, as they rightfully will someday, we just have to remember to make sure Dierks Bentley and Church get grandfathered in.
- Dawes, “Passwords” (HUB)
Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith was clearly a man in love. Where most of Dawes’ albums have pretty much been across-the-board breakup records, this one just about qualified as an engagement album. Goldsmith’s apparent personal mellowing has resulted in a musically mellower collection, too, with the single that teased the record, “Living in the Future,” being the tense exception and not the rule. In theory, his relaxation sounds like a recipe for a letdown, since conflict is king when it comes to his brand of relationship delineation. But did you really think that the best young songwriter any rock ‘n’ roll band has for a frontman was suddenly going to lose his mojo just because his outlook brightened? Well, maybe I did, for a second, but it didn’t happen. Goldsmith makes about as good a re-enfranchised romantic as he did a disappointed one. There are still torrents of sinewy rhythm to enliven even the moments of rapt satisfaction, and there’s still a satisfying residual sadness as the band leader comes to terms with things going right. His compassionate, forgiving tone here was exactly what we needed in an angry 2018, even if we didn’t have nuptials to distract us from the news.
The year’s 10 best singles:
“Slow Burn,” Kacey Musgraves
“All the Stars,” Kendrick Lamar and SZA
“Armor,” Sara Bareilles
“This is America,” Childish Gambino
“Make Me Feel,” Janelle Monae
“The Middle,” Zedd/Maren Morris/Grey
“Missing U,” Robyn
“God is a Woman,” Ariana Grande
“Short Skirt Weather,” Kane Brown
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Johnny Mercer & Margaret Whiting