THE HIGHEST MARKS: 10 Best Albums of the Year by Mark Engleson


This year saw many fantastic albums, and in selecting my 10 best I had to leave out many albums that I thought were absolutely superb. Some may object that some of my albums stray from the strict definition of Americana/roots music, but I would reply that all the albums I mention here received attention in that press. I chose albums that dealt with the weightiest of issues, and were intellectually hefty, and I also chose albums that demonstrate the best way to make bright, warm music. The albums in this list are all unique and different.  (Click on anything in bold to find more about the artist)

Neko Case, Hell-On

Case always makes strong albums, and she’s not afraid to experiment. This may not fall into the Americana/roots category, but was certainly covered by that press. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure exactly what Hell-On is, I just know that I like it. Case’s songs have intellectual heft, like the ecofeminism of “Last Lion of Albion,” and she uses both standard and non-standard lyrical structures to great effect.

Brent Cobb, Providence Canyon

Brent Cobb rocks out on Providence Canyon, with his cousin Dave Cobb’s production boosting the album’s sound to something truly special. Cobb has a soulful voice that invites you to listen to his beautifully detailed lyrics. Listening to the lead track of this record, I can easily picture the day described. I am transported.

Mary Gauthier, Rifles and Rosary Beads

Written with veterans at the Songwriting:With Soldiers program, the songs on Rifles and Rosary Beads carry as much emotional power as anything that came out this year. They have the weight of truth, and they stay with you. As disconnected as much of the American population is from its veterans, this somber, heavy album is a necessary wake-up call to really think about them in a serious way, as individual people with struggles and not just “the troops.” “Brothers” really gave me new insight into women in the armed services.

Ashley Monroe, Sparrow

Thirty years ago, it was men who were making tradition-influenced, back-to-basics country music. Today, that has flipped, and women like Monroe are the ones making roots-driven country, while men are making “bro-country.” This album, driven by acoustic instruments, showcases Monroe’s exceptional writing talents to talk about parents and children. “Mother’s Daughter” is one of the best songs of the year.

Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

This is sparkling pop, but of the finest kind. Sometimes, in the Americana community, we get hung up on the notion that all songs have to be heavy and dark in tone. They don’t. There’s art, too, in making warm songs, and those songs can show intelligent, insightful writing. Kacey Musgraves does all that here, and the result is lovely. “Space Cowboy” employs cleverness and a knowledge of pop culture references to great effect.

Old Crow Medicine Show, Volunteer

Twenty years on and the Old Crow crew sounds better than ever. Their picking is tight, and the songs are fresh. This is Old Crow’s best, most inspired work, after three excellent previous albums. “Homecoming Party” is as tender and song a song about a musician’s life on the road as you’ll hear.

Cat Power, The Wanderer

Cat Power has always held so much promise; with The Wanderer, she lives up to live that promise. Her husky voice has never sounded better. There’s an undercurrent of soul music here that fills out the sound beautifully, while still sounding like a Cat Power singer-songwriter album. It’s enchanting stuff.

Amy Ray, Holler

In a roots turn, Amy Ray made an album that I prefer to her work with the Indigo Girls. This album perfectly captures what Patterson Hood once called “the duality of the Southern thing,” that mix of love for a place with frustration with its shortcomings. Ray grapples here with her status as an outsider, and she tackles some of the South’s biggest demons on “Sure Feels Good Anyway.”

Marc Ribot, Songs of Resistance, 1942-2018

I came to this spectacular album by way of Steve Earle. Earle and Tift Merritt guest for the song “Srinivas,” about a Sikh man tragically mistaken for Muslim and murdered. In addition to Earle and Merritt, Fay Victor, Justin Vivian Bond, Meshell Ndegeocello, Sam Amidon, Tom Waits, Syd Straw, and Ohene Cornelius appear on this album. Ribot reworks traditional songs, alongside his moving original pieces. Above that, the different pieces take wildly different forms, better fitting Ribot’s various collaborators. This is simply the very best musical response to the Trump presidency.

The Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel

Three strong women with distinctive voices made one of the best albums of the year, with a cohesive sound, coherent thoughts, and a lot of laughs. Rootsy, full of exceptional three-part harmonies, and spirited, this is another case of women taking back the rootsy side of mainstream country. And they’re doing it with style.

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