It may have been a rough year for a variety of reasons, but none of them were musical. 2018 saw a plethora of fantastic albums from artists young and old, and across all musical genres. The more I tried to narrow this list down to ten, the harder it became, so I stretched the limits and ended up with 20 (plus two honorable mentions – a pair of compilations of previously released and unreleased material by a couple of Wilburys – one who’s left us, the other still on the road heading for another joint).
The criteria were simple. I judged the albums based on the ones I listened to – reached for – most often. Some I reviewed for publications (whose original reviews are linked below), some I didn’t. Hopefully, you’ll find something here that will pique your curiosity and cause you to seek it out, or at least prompt you to revisit an album you may have dismissed or overlooked earlier in the year. Thanks for reading and be sure to support the artists that bring you joy. Go to a show, buy a physical album; turn it up, and enjoy yourself.
NOTE: No Depression has recently overhauled their website. It looks great, but some of the links below are currently inoperable. Hopefully, they’ll have them all back up soon. Thanks for reading!
1. Amanda Shires – To The Sunset
A masterpiece that reflected on resilience in the face of adversity as well as the relationship between mothers and daughters (“Eve’s Daughter,” “Charms”), the ebullience of new love (“Leave It Alone,” “Parking Lot Pirouette”), and perspective while the world falls apart around you (“Break Out The Champagne”). Throughout, To The Sunset shimmers with multi-layered arrangements, peerless songwriting, and production that works without regard to categorization or genre.
2. Aaron Lee Tasjan – Karma For Cheap
Tasjan took the cosmic cowboy schtick to its logical conclusion in 2018, delivering an album that evoked endless summer days as seen through a hazy veil of Beatlesque psychedelia and scintillating ELO-like production. There’s not a hint of Music City in this East Nashvillian’s ode to childhood memories through sunny choruses and irresistibly sugar-coated melodies – and it’s all the better for it.
3. John Prine – The Tree Of Forgiveness
Prine’s first in many-a-moon showed up on several year-end lists for good reason – it’s as strong as any in Prine’s oeuvre. From the hilarious “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” to the impossible-to-listen-without-smiling-through-tears “When I Get to Heaven,” Prine proves deserving of every accolade bestowed upon him this year – and all the years passed.
4. Kevin Welch – Dust Devil
Another artist long overdue for a new album in 2018, Welch’s first solo outing since 2010’s A Patch of Blue Sky is his best in two decades. The writing is unequaled, his choice of covers exquisite, and that soothing rasp is still front-and-center. The title track alone is worth the admission, but adding in the other nine makes this the deal of the year.
5. Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son
Ry Cooder, at the urging of his son Joachim, returned to that inimitable slide guitar and to interpreting classic gospel and blues on The Prodigal Son. The title track adds lyrics about Cooder first laying eyes upon pedal steel guitar legend Ralph Mooney and the effect it had on him, turning the Sensational Nightingales’ take on the Old Testament parable into a dusty, bluesy celebration of “dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music.”
6. The War and Treaty – Healing Tide
Michael and Tanya Trotter have quite the astonishing backstory. I urge you to read up on them. What matters most, of course, is the music, and Healing Tide delivers. Deep soul and hard gospel surround lyrics rooted in love – love for one another, love for all. It was the most celebratory, joy-filled release of 2018 – a year when we really needed some positive vibes.
7. John Howie, Jr. – Not Tonight
The best country music doesn’t have to be sad, but it sure as hell has to be honest. The Two Dollar Pistols frontman and leader of the Rosewood Bluff checks both boxes and then some on his solo debut. Detailing the end of a relationship in startling and brutal detail over the course of 40 minutes, Not Tonight may not be your first choice of music for the party, but it will be the one you reach for when you’re left on your own.
8. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Watching an artist grow from album to album is always rewarding, and Musgraves delivered her best yet in 2018. Golden Hour is miles away from her first two; long on atmosphere and deep, kaleidoscopic textures, it’s country music psychedelicized. The clever wordplay is still there, but it’s embedded into airy, sweeping arrangements that never sound forced. Even the techno-lite of “High Horse” and nods to ’70s-era ELO sound inevitable.
9. Shemekia Copeland – America’s Child
America’s Child is an album we needed in 2018. Songs about race, #metoo, and what it means to truly be a patriot sit alongside tributes to southern cookin’, prideful blues stomps, heartwrenching soul, and a bluesy John Prine cover (featuring vocals by the man himself). The guest list is impressive (Prine, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens, Mary Gauthier, Steve Cropper, etc.), but this is definitely Copeland’s show, and she shines throughout.
10. Mark Knopfler – Down The Road Wherever
Marking 40 years since Dire Straits’ debut album, 2018 saw Knopfler looking back as he moved ahead. Songs like “Drover’s Road” and “One Song at a Time” seem to address the infancy of his old band matter-of-factly without sentimentality nor regret. The beauty of this sprawling set (the deluxe version boasts 16 tracks) unfolds over its 80-minute runtime. Knopfler’s fluid guitar never overpowers the songs.
11. Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Years
The biggest compliment I can give to any band’s album is that it sounds just like their live show (paradoxically, the worst thing I can say about a band is that their live show sounds just like their album). Years doubles down on Sidelong‘s barroom sweat, punk power, and honky-tonk blood. Shook sings ’em like she sees ’em. Her Disarmers burn the damn place down while she’s drinking us under the table. Yeah, there’s heartbreak, but it’s with a side of middle finger.
12. John Hiatt – The Eclipse Sessions
There’s just something so…comfortable about John Hiatt. His gruff growl sounds both pained and wise. Saying he’s grown into that magnificent voice is a given. The songs on The Eclipse Sessions cover typical Hiatt territory, but he always finds new ways to twist and shake up the everyday and mundane. From the warning of “Over the Hill” to the honest and oddly-reassuring “Cry to Me,” Hiatt gives us another reason to rejoice in the raw beauty of imperfection.
13. Carter Sampson – Lucky
Yeah, lucky 13. Somewhere between Norah Jones and Natalie Merchant, Sampson’s voice crafts these tales of love and luck from the long, dusty, desolate plains of Oklahoma with a sly wink and strong sense of what makes a song captivating. Including a cover of Shel Silverstein’s venerable “Queen of the Silver Dollar” drives home the point that not only can Sampson write the hell out of a song, she can pick ’em, too.
14. Bettye LaVette – Things Have Changed
Rhythm and blues’ greatest comeback story continues as LaVette does Dylan. “Reinterpret” is a word that may be overused, but here it’s most apropos. She drops the F-bomb in the title track, changes the subject of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” (and in doing so, rips out your heart and stomps that sucker flat), and turns “It Ain’t Me, Babe” into the mother of all soul-drenched rejections. Things Have Changed leaves you hoping LaVette keeps rummaging through Zimmy’s vaults.
15. Dan Baird and Homemade Sin – Screamer
Hands-down, the best balls-out rock’n’roll album of the year. Screamer looks mortality in the face and, well, screams at it, blows by it, and keeps rockin’. Baird and company strut, sway, rock, pummel, groove, and roll through over 50 minutes of fist-pumpin’ anthems with a couple of sawdust weepers thrown in for good measure. Cancer can take a screamin’ leap and a back seat – Dan and the Sin are here to stay.
16. Phil Cook – People Are My Drug
I admit to having been under a rock when it came to Phil Cook. However, I crawled out from under it when I caught wind of People Are My Drug and I’ve been humming and singing along to its contents ever since. Blues, gospel, soul – and a big heart. It pulls you in with the slow-burning opener “Steampowered Blues” and leads you through a joyous journey of peace, love, and rock and roll.
17. The Bottle Rockets – Bit Logic
The country-rock fury from Missouri returned in 2018 with an album that didn’t so much complain about the hi-tech present as merely observe and report in their dry, inimitable way. (Ok, “Lo-Fi” may come close to “old man yells at cloud” territory, but it definitely hits me right in the feels.) The hilarious yet heartbreakingly on-point “Bad Time to Be an Outlaw” is worth the price of admission alone. Uber-cool producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel returned to bring out their best, which they always deliver.
18. Rosali – Trouble Anyway
Awash in guitars, Rosali’s magnificent Trouble Anyway glides through your ears like butter. The grungy sound owes more to the War on Drugs (whose Charlie Hall contributes and Jeff Zeigler mixes), Cowboy Junkies, and Living With the Law-era Chris Whitley than the Seattle sound of the early ’90s. Yet it’s the songs that matter, of course, and Rosali has crafted an album’s worth that stays with you long after the sustain has faded.
19. Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis – Wild! Wild! Wild!
I would say that Linda Gail Lewis could write a book, but she already has. While her album with Van Morrison (You Win Again) almost 20 years ago was a sweet and fun trip down memory lane with choice covers of classic country chestnuts, with Robbie Fulks she pulls out all the stops and goes Wild! Wild! Wild! The country here rocks and the rock rolls, while “I Just Lived a Country Song” has the power to expose all charlatans.
20. Cedric Burnside – Benton County Relic
The grandson of North Mississippi blues legend, R.L. Burnside, Cedric stepped out from behind the drums, plugged in his guitar, and conjured the deepest, sensual, raw, trance-blues of the year. It wasn’t all mojo drone, however; “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess” struts, crows, and swaggers like Zeppelin holed up in a hill country juke.
Tom Petty – An American Treasure
Bursting at the seams with live and alternate studio versions of both Petty classics and deep cuts, and peppered with previously unreleased revelations, An American Treasure was a bittersweet posthumous release from the rock and roll legend who left us unexpectedly and way too soon in October of 2017. Almost a year to the day later, we received this reminder of what a gift his music was to us all.
Bob Dylan – More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 14
Throughout the entire Bootleg Series, fans have been waiting for two big eras – the Basement Tapes (finally unveiled in Volume 11) and the Blood on the Tracks sessions. Finally released in 2018 as Volume 14, More Blood, More Tracks unearthed the full sessions from New York, both solo and with Eric Weissberg & Deliverance helmed by Phil Ramone, and the later sessions in Minnesota with brother David Zimmerman behind the console. Details aside, this is quite simply the holy grail of anger and vulnerability set to song.