Mack’s 20-Pack: Top 20 (+1) Americana Albums 2018

Reviews

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I have to be honest here. Music writers are people too, so their year-end top-whatever lists tend to be the soundtracks to their lives for that year, whether they’re conscious of that or not. My playlist includes a fair number of gloom & doom songs/albums, not just because they’re great albums, but because they captured what my (and perhaps for many, our collective) world felt like this past year.

The “extra” song in this playlist is the one by Elvin Bishop & Big Fun. That album isn’t Top 20 overall, but that song perfectly captures one aspect of the past year for me. (You’ll see!)

A few quick words on the albums I chose are included below. I should mention that Melissa Clarke, the editor of Americana Highways, is a real slavedriver. I originally compiled a playlist containing 701 songs (!!), and she kept insisting that I whittle it down some more, and then some more.

I had a really tough time doing that. 2018 was a GREAT year for Americana — a ton of incredibly good music was released over the past 12 months.

A few albums I reluctantly had to leave off my list (darn editors!) were: Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Karma for Cheap, The War and Treaty’s Healing Tide, Lake Street Dive’s Free Yourself Up, Leon Bridges’ Good Thing, Nicki Bluhm’s To Rise You Gotta Fall, Cedric Burnside’s Benton County Relic, Shakey Graves’ Can’t Wake Up, Rayland Baxter’s Wide Awake, Kaia Kater’s Grenades, I’m With Her’s See You Around, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Live from the Ryman, Horse Feathers’ Appreciation, Hiss Golden Messenger’s Virgo Fool, Erin Rae’s Putting on Airs, Trampled by Turtles’ Life is Good on the Open Road, Phil Cook’s People Are My Drug, Parker Milsap’s Other Arrangements, Lori McKenna’s The Tree, The Milk Carton Kids’ Just Look at Us Now, Lydia Luce’s Azalea, Cordovas’ That Santa Fe Channel, Sam Lewis’s Loversity, River Whyless’s Kindness, A Rebel, Leah Belvins’ Walk Home, Ruston Kelly’s Dying Star, and John Hiatt’s The Eclipse Sessions.

See what I mean about 2018 being a great year for Americana music? Call ‘em “runners-up” if you like, but all of those albums could have easily slipped into my top 20 had I compiled the final list on a different day. (Like I TOLD you: music writers are human too.)

Some quick comments on my final top 20.

  • Rhett Miller is amazing isn’t he? I mean, still writing such charming, witty- then-wistful songs after all these years. He’s like a fucking songwriting Fountain of Youth.
  • Fantastic Negrito was this year’s major revelation for me. I absolutely love the fearless blending and bending of genres, the blunt social messaging, the unflinching intensity and soulfulness. WOW, WOW, WOW!
  • Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats just keep getting better, don’t they? And they were already pretty damn great. I love the addition of those Muscle Shoals horns to his musical palette on Tearing at the Seams.
  • I read somewhere this week that Brandi Carlile is poised to sweep a bunch of awards in the Americana-related categories at the Grammys this year. Well, that’s because By the Way, I Forgive You is a fucking great album. Duh!
  • Speaking of fucking great: How cool is it that John Prine is still cranking out his inimitable mixture of cleverly turned phrases and incredibly poignant, deeply human tales? I dare anyone to try NOT to fall in love with The Tree of Forgiveness.
  • I saw Alejandro Escovedo and his backing Italian punk rock band play at this year’s Americana Fest and was blown away. The Crossing is timely, incisive and flat-out rockin’. Nice to see the mainstream critics digging it too.
  • I interviewed the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman for Americana Highways a few weeks ago. You should read that interview. Brian is one funny, cool, and very real dude. Bit Logic is quite possibly the Rockets’ best album to date. That’s saying a lot.
  • I like tough chicks who tell it like it is. I like whiskey. So of course I love Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. Years is another tasty one from them.
  • Speaking of tough chicks, whiskey and rock n roll: The Reckless Electric embody that combo perfectly. And their Comeback is SO. MUCH. FUN.
  • Amanda Shires: Holy cow. We knew she could play fiddle and sing. But who knew she could write so goddamn well? She gives her husband Jason a run for his money with To the Sunset.
  • What a year for Jeff Tweedy, eh? His cool new memoir is getting lots of buzz and his solo album is, too. Given all that he’s been through during his long, sometimes checkered career, it’s nice to see his dogged persistence paying off.
  • Rifles and Rosary Beads is astonishing just as a concept. The heartrending songs Mary Gauthier and her veterans produced are even more astonishing. What an amazing project.
  • With so many great albums and songs under his belt, and with that wonderfully unique voice of his, why doesn’t Grant-Lee Phillips get more love on the year-end lists? I love Widdershins. Please give it a spin.
  • Tucson desert-vibe rockers Calexico have likewise been delivering the goods for a long time with their unique yet distinctly Americana-leaning blend of musical stylings. The Thread That Keeps Us came out early in the year; I hope people don’t forget what a great release it was. It should be on lots of top-whatever lists.
  • I had some misconceptions about The Band of Heathens going into my first listen to A Message from the People Revisited that led me to approach it with undue skepticism. Suffice to say, they wiped that skepticism clean away. This is a great album.
  • I was lucky enough to see Ry Cooder and Emmylou Harris play in Philadelphia earlier this year. I was even luckier, like the rest of us, to be treated to a wonderful new album by Ry. It has all the elements that made him one of your favorites back in the 70s and 80s, and he’s only gotten better and wiser.
  • Sunny War was another of my big musical discoveries in 2018. What a voice! I love how she seamlessly blends folk, soul and blues. And what a compelling personal story. Check her out, people.
  • Malcolm Holcombe’s Come Hell or High Water, which I also reviewed for Americana Highways, is… well, pure, 100-proof, undistilled Malcolm. Which is to say, it’s consistently surprising and masterful. Nobody sings or writes like Malcolm; he’s an under-appreciated national treasure, IMHO.
  • The cover photo for Lucero’s Among the Ghosts — a stark, sepia-grey, full-frontal shot of a church semi-submerged in flood waters — perfectly captures for me the drab gloominess that pervaded 2018. The songs on this album evoke it too. “To My Dearest Wife” may be the most stunning and beautiful song Ben Nichols has ever penned.
  •  Last but not least — Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s No Mercy in This Land is one of those albums that just gets under your skin, in a good and possibly permanent way. Kind of like a tough year that only makes you stronger.

Have a joyous, thankful and wonder-filled New Year!

A few quick words on the albums I chose are included below. I should mention that Melissa Clarke, the editor of Americana Highways, is a real slavedriver. I originally compiled a playlist containing 701 songs (!!), and she kept insisting that I whittle it down some more, and then some more.

I had a really tough time doing that. 2018 was a GREAT year for Americana — a ton of incredibly good music was released over the past 12 months.

A few albums I reluctantly had to leave off my list (darn editors!) were: Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Karma for Cheap, The War and Treaty’s Healing Tide, Lake Street Dive’s Free Yourself Up, Leon Bridges’ Good Thing, Nicki Bluhm’s To Rise You Gotta Fall, Cedric Burnside’s Benton County Relic, Shakey Graves’ Can’t Wake Up, Rayland Baxter’s Wide Awake, Kaia Kater’s Grenades, I’m With Her’s See You Around, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Live from the Ryman, Horse Feathers’ Appreciation, Hiss Golden Messenger’s Virgo Fool, Erin Rae’s Putting on Airs, Trampled by Turtles’ Life is Good on the Open Road, Phil Cook’s People Are My Drug, Parker Milsap’s Other Arrangements, Lori McKenna’s The Tree, The Milk Carton Kids’ Just Look at Us Now, Lydia Luce’s Azalea, Cordovas’ That Santa Fe Channel, Sam Lewis’s Loversity, River Whyless’s Kindness, A Rebel, Leah Belvins’ Walk Home, Ruston Kelly’s Dying Star, and John Hiatt’s The Eclipse Sessions.

See what I mean about 2018 being a great year for Americana music? Call ‘em “runners-up” if you like, but all of those albums could have easily slipped into my top 20 had I compiled the final list on a different day. (Like I TOLD you: music writers are human too.)

Some quick comments on my final top 20.

  • Rhett Miller is amazing isn’t he? I mean, still writing such charming, witty- then-wistful songs after all these years. He’s like a fucking songwriting Fountain of Youth.
  • Fantastic Negrito was this year’s major revelation for me. I absolutely love the fearless blending and bending of genres, the blunt social messaging, the unflinching intensity and soulfulness. WOW, WOW, WOW!
  • Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats just keep getting better, don’t they? And they were already pretty damn great. I love the addition of those Muscle Shoals horns to his musical palette on Tearing at the Seams.
  • I read somewhere this week that Brandi Carlile is poised to sweep a bunch of awards in the Americana-related categories at the Grammys this year. Well, that’s because By the Way, I Forgive You is a fucking great album. Duh!
  • Speaking of fucking great: How cool is it that John Prine is still cranking out his inimitable mixture of cleverly turned phrases and incredibly poignant, deeply human tales? I dare anyone to try NOT to fall in love with The Tree of Forgiveness.
  • I saw Alejandro Escovedo and his backing Italian punk rock band play at this year’s Americana Fest and was blown away. The Crossing is timely, incisive and flat-out rockin’. Nice to see the mainstream critics digging it too.
  • I interviewed the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman for Americana Highways a few weeks ago. You should read that interview. Brian is one funny, cool, and very real dude. Bit Logic is quite possibly the Rockets’ best album to date. That’s saying a lot.
  • I like tough chicks who tell it like it is. I like whiskey. So of course I love Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. Years is another tasty one from them.
  • Speaking of tough chicks, whiskey and rock n roll: The Reckless Electric embody that combo perfectly. And their Comeback is SO. MUCH. FUN.
  • Amanda Shires: Holy cow. We knew she could play fiddle and sing. But who knew she could write so goddamn well? She gives her husband Jason a run for his money with To the Sunset.
  • What a year for Jeff Tweedy, eh? His cool new memoir is getting lots of buzz and his solo album is, too. Given all that he’s been through during his long, sometimes checkered career, it’s nice to see his dogged persistence paying off.
  • Rifles and Rosary Beads is astonishing just as a concept. The heartrending songs Mary Gauthier and her veterans produced are even more astonishing. What an amazing project.
  • With so many great albums and songs under his belt, and with that wonderfully unique voice of his, why doesn’t Grant-Lee Phillips get more love on the year-end lists? I love Widdershins. Please give it a spin.
  • Tucson desert-vibe rockers Calexico have likewise been delivering the goods for a long time with their unique yet distinctly Americana-leaning blend of musical stylings. The Thread That Keeps Us came out early in the year; I hope people don’t forget what a great release it was. It should be on lots of top-whatever lists.
  • I had some misconceptions about The Band of Heathens going into my first listen to A Message from the People Revisited that led me to approach it with undue skepticism. Suffice to say, they wiped that skepticism clean away. This is a great album.
  • I was lucky enough to see Ry Cooder and Emmylou Harris play in Philadelphia earlier this year. I was even luckier, like the rest of us, to be treated to a wonderful new album by Ry. It has all the elements that made him one of your favorites back in the 70s and 80s, and he’s only gotten better and wiser.
  • Sunny War was another of my big musical discoveries in 2018. What a voice! I love how she seamlessly blends folk, soul and blues. And what a compelling personal story. Check her out, people.
  • Malcolm Holcombe’s Come Hell or High Water, which I also reviewed for Americana Highways, is… well, pure, 100-proof, undistilled Malcolm. Which is to say, it’s consistently surprising and masterful. Nobody sings or writes like Malcolm; he’s an under-appreciated national treasure, IMHO.
  • The cover photo for Lucero’s Among the Ghosts — a stark, sepia-grey, full-frontal shot of a church semi-submerged in flood waters — perfectly captures for me the drab gloominess that pervaded 2018. The songs on this album evoke it too. “To My Dearest Wife” may be the most stunning and beautiful song Ben Nichols has ever penned.
  •  Last but not least — Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s No Mercy in This Land is one of those albums that just gets under your skin, in a good and possibly permanent way. Kind of like a tough year that only makes you stronger.

Have a joyous, thankful and wonder-filled New Year!

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