Andy Gulden is a Senior Writer at Americana Highways and has written multiple and various reviews this year, always adding a more than a touch of humor and warmth. This is his 2018 year-end roundup list: (Click on the artist names for more info; playlist is at the bottom.)
The “I’m Gonna Be Needing This on Vinyl” Top 10 (because vinyl’s expensive, but some albums require it):
10) Sunny War, With The Sun – Stunning songs and simple, yet instrumentally full, arrangements from the former busker of Venice Beach.
9) Lori McKenna, The Tree – A great songwriter who’s been keeping her best work for herself.
8) Lucy Dacus, Historian – Young Richmonder makes good with a lifetime of sadness in a 23-year-old frame.
7) Carson McHone, Carousel – Employs the time-tested method of writing songs inspired by overheard bar conversations.
6) Erika Wennerstrom, Sweet Unknown – In which the Heartless Bastards fronter goes solo, expels emotional wreckage and makes the best road record of the year.
5) Cowboy Junkies, All That Reckoning – Three decades in, the Canadian band is still stretching their sound and redefining what we now call Americana.
4) Lucero, Among The Ghosts – Subjects range from the long-ago (the Civil War) to the intimately familiar (fatherhood spent on the road).
3) Courtney Marie Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain – It can be hard to feel kind in 2018, but hearing that voice makes it a little easier.
2) Brandi Carlile, By The Way, I Forgive You – Forgiveness, perhaps. But she’s still gonna tell you exactly how she feels.
1) Becky Warren, Undesirable – Ironically, the only one that seems not to exist on vinyl. No matter – this collection of songs inspired by the stories of the homeless and displaced is without peer in 2018.
The “10 Songs That Stopped Me Dead in My Tracks in 2018” playlist:
10) “Charlottesville” by Jesse Dayton – Not so much a protest song as a “Really, we’re still doing this?” song. As Dayton says, “This ain’t no time for cowards.”
9) “Violent” by Sunny War – A relationship on the edge of going very, VERY wrong – “If you don’t leave, and let me grieve/It could get violent.” Heed the warning.
8) “Everything Has Changed” by Lucero – Ben Nichols gives us an aging man trying to escape the same ol’ screw-ups: “Ain’t no fire can burn up my mistakes.”
7) “All That Reckoning” by Cowboy Junkies – A two-parter which bookends the album of the same name and goes from young lust to mature love, all with a musical tension bubbling underneath.
6) “The Spider Song” by Carson McHone – A young woman asks her lover to trust her: “Rest assured this melody I sing/Holds more promise than a ring.”
5) “Good Kisser” by Lake Street Dive – The singer hopes her reputation outlives a broken relationship, sung over a deceptively bouncy beat and making the argument that Rachael Price may be the best frontwoman in the biz.
4) “Troublemaker” by Devon Gilfillian – The Nashville singer-songwriter makes big, loud, greasy fun.
3) “Twisted Highway” by Erika Wennerstrom – This song kicks off her solo debut. You cannot turn up your car stereo loud enough to properly enjoy it.
2) “Dabbs Avenue” and “The Drake Motel” by Becky Warren – A bit of a cheat, but the best album of 2018 deserves two cuts. These songs feature the lows and (relative) highs of the homeless Nashville human beings who populate Warren’s songs. The abject loneliness of wandering the streets gives way to the modest triumph of making a home in a room-by-the-week.
1) “The Joke” by Brandi Carlile – Everything America should be, and actually is, in under five minutes, brought to you by one of the best voices on the planet.
Best live experience – Hearing Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit play “Elephant” at Red Rocks was amazing. Hearing it less than two months later at the Ryman? Indelible.
Musical revelation – Samantha Crain. I saw her open two different shows in Denver. Her albums and her songs? Amazing. Hearing her perform them live with just her voice and a guitar? Perfection.
Missed out on – Brandi Carlile at Red Rocks. Because who really wants to hear her sing “The Joke” in the best outdoor venue on the planet? BAD music critic.
Personal nerd moment – After 30 years of fandom, getting to meet Margo Timmons of Cowboy Junkies at a Twist & Shout Records in-store, then hearing the entire band play live in Boulder later that night (incredibly, my first time seeing them).
Look forward to – 2019 promises new music from Joy Williams, Mandolin Orange, Hayes Carll, Ryan Bingham, Jenny Lewis, The Cadillac Three, and a Josh Ritter album produced by Jason Isbell. Speaking of which – Mr. Isbell has hinted that he’s writing new songs…
Best overall moment of 2018 – The Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup. Obviously.