Cardi B., Mitski, Robyn, Lucy Dacus, Camila Cabelo, Kali Uchis, Neko Case, Brandi Carlile, and Lindsay Jordan (aka Snail Mail) all landed on multiple top twenty lists. A number of other women front bands who also received critical acclaim including Florence and the Machine
and Christine and the Queens. All ruled the pop/rock download charts and became darlings of the taste makers. None of them made my own top ten, but that doesn't mean they didn't catch my ear. There was so much good music being produced by women this year that it was impossible to ignore the trend. Several of the ones who made my list have been personal favorites for many years. But any of the other names at the top of this paragraph are likely to be here in the future.
1. Dirty Computer. Janelle Monae (Bad Boy). Her 2018 album reminded me a lot of her first full-length album, ArchAndroid, which landed on my end of the year list in 2010. Like that one, this year's model is a concept album that bristles with confidence and skips a delicate dance between classic soul and politically edged hip hop. The Electric Lady (2013) was dance pop of the highest order. Computer is more thoughtfully developed, a dystopian fantasy which starts out with Monae's persona, Jane58621, having her memory "cleaned" at a facility run by a totalitarian government. Don't let this creepy premise keep you from enjoying an American singer/actress who is approaching iconic status. In the year of the woman, she's pop's high priestess.
2. Tell Me How You Really Feel. Courtney Barnett. (Mom and Pop). For the third time in four years, Ms. Barnett has landed in my top three. Last year, her slacker mandate, a collaboration with Philly rocker Kurt Vile (see also below) was in the three spot. In 2015, her witty classic Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was my favorite record of the year. If you love rock and roll sung with passion and driven by smart, snarky observations and snarling guitar licks, it's time to give her your undivided attention. Listen with an open mind to "Need a Little Time" and see if you can keep from becoming a bigger fanboy than I am.
3. Hope Downs. Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever. (Sub Pop). I guess there must be something in the drinking water of Melbourne that makes its local musicians play inspired rock n' roll. Courtney Barnett hails from Melbourne and so does this kick ass quintet, whose act I caught this summer at Johnny Brenda's. They follow the same rock template of their alt-rock Aussie ancestors, the Hoodoo Gurus: a blending of ringing guitar runs, melodies that stick in your brain and harmonies sung in that fetching Aussie accent. "Talking Straight", "Sister's Jeans" and "An Air-Conditioned Man" are the album's highlights. This album proves that indie rock is still relevant, not just in Melbourne.
4. Golden Hour. Kasey Musgraves (MCA). Musgraves is a veteran of the alt-country scene whose first four or five albums skewed more to country than alternative. This one adopts a wider variety of genres, including dance pop ("High Horse") and the kind of airy art house pillowy vibe that Sufjan Stevens perfected (in the title track). But at its heart it still shares the sincerity and simplicity that makes country music so easy to connect with. This one is easy to like, even if country is not your bag. Crossover done right.
5. Whack World. Tierra Whack. (Interscope). Philadelphia's hip hop artist to watch and the first of three local artists/bands worth checking out on this list. Whack turned her ADHD issues into a 15-minute EP masterpiece. The concept was simple:each song lasts just 60 seconds. Each is accompanied by a 60-second video. Fifteen songs in 15 minutes. I know from sharing classroom time with students in their late teens and from my own daughter's impatience with music that doesn't make a point by the chorus: this concept is a sonic solution to attention deficit issues. The surprises never end on Whack World but the biggest surprise is that the whole thing works as a great creative statement of purpose.
6. Bottle It In. Kurt Vile (Matador). Vile's "Loading Zones" has become one of my favorite songs of the year, a shambling head trip through the streets of South Philly, loopy and eccentric and utterly charming. Don't miss the video version. Vile's songs are keenly observed, never feel frantic, and grow more likable with each listen. "Rolling With the Flow" and "Bassackwards" are two stoner classics in league with "Zones." You need not smoke a bowl to enjoy this one, but if you do, you'll feel the loopy glory of Bottle It In a lot more clearly.
7. Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Hop Along. (Saddle Creek Records). Bark Your Head Off is the third album from another Philly indie rock band and easily their most accessible. Like Vile, Frances Quinlan's eye for telling detail is part of the charm of her best songs. Download "Not Abel" or "The Fox in Motion" to experience a songwriter working at the top of her game.
8. 13 Rivers. Richard Thompson (New West Records). It's hard to imagine a guy his age (he'll turn 70 in April) can make music as visceral and exciting as this. Among his peers, only Van Morrison seems as eager to add to his recorded legacy as British guitarist Thompson. If you count yourself as a fan but haven't purchased anything in recent years, this is the one that will make you remember why he matters and why you loved him. "The Storm Won't Come" (which kicks off an album full of terrific songs) may eventually rank as one of his very best.
9. Dying Star. Ruston Kelly (Rounder). My friend Pat Feeney gets a big shout out for suggesting I give this one a try. Feeney owns Main Street Music, a record store in the Manayunk section of Philly where I frequently hear new music and find vinyl gems. He claims Dying Star is his favorite album of the past five years. For a guy who listens to new music as much as Feeney, that's high praise. Its charms are evident on the first listen. Paste magazine compared Kelly to Ryan Adams' first band, Whiskeytown. I also hear a lot of the young Jackson Brown in his vocal presentation. "Mockingbird" and "Blackout" are standouts. Ironically, from my viewpoint, as good as it is, it's not the best new album in his own house. He's married to Kasey Musgrave, whose Golden Hour ranks at number 4.
10. El Mal Querer (Bad Love). Rosalia. This 25-year old Spanish singer released my favorite world music album of the year, a stunning update to the flamenco traditions of her native country. Repetitive phrases, augmented by percussive hand claps, keyboards and acoustic guitars, make for an irresistible treat. "Di Mi Nombre" is probably the place to start, but the whole enchilada is worth tasting. Mesmerizing.
In alphabetical order, these albums flesh out my favorite 20 albums of 2018: Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You; Neko Case, Hell On; Christine and the Queens, Chris; Lucy Dacus, Historian; Father John Misty, God's Favorite Customer; Ariana Grande, Sweetener; Kendrick Lamar, Black Panther (soundtrack); Mitski, Be the Cowboy; Robyn, Honey. Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth.