The Year in Music on Christmas Eve? You betcha.
Today I give you five albums from 2018 that appealed to my country receptors. I don’t know what brought it on, but I endured a major country music phase in high school, and those years left behind a serious sensitivity for twang, particularly twang tinged with indignation. I haven’t stomached commercial country music since the mid 90’s, but every year I go loopy for a few steel guitar, rockabilly, whiskey-soaked crooner acts.
This year that soft spot found albums by four acts I’d heard before and one I hadn’t. Three of them have the same distribution agency.
The Black Lillies are a band I knew from their 2013 album Runaway Freeway Blues, a Grand Ol’ Opry style country collection that I liked a lot in certain moods. I couldn’t really find the mood for their followup to it, but I heard rumors about a sort of Black Lillies reboot in 2018, so I jumped on Stranger to Me (Attack Monkey Productions/Thirty Tigers) the day it came out.
The reboot essentially trades swoon for muscle. Trish Gene Brady and her sultry vocals are gone, and the songs on Stranger to Me are driven by electric, not steel, guitars. They’re louder and edgier, although there’s still space, as on “Ten Years,” for an organ, and Cruz Contreras’s voice is all country. You mostly feel the reboot on songs like “Weighting,” when Sam Quinn is singing.
It’s a solid collection. I like the reboot, both what it kept and what it added.
Neko Case made an album in 2018 too. That’s always a good sign. She hasn’t done that since 2013. This one she produced herself.
Neko Case is one of the busiest musicians working today, what with her recording and touring with collaborations like The New Pornographers and 2017’s case/lang/viers, so a self-produced solo album creates a ton of expectations. Hell-On (Anti-Records) does not disappoint.
She’s just such a terrific songwriter. “Last Lion of Albion” is like nothing you’ve ever heard (she did a Song Exploder for it that’s great listening), and the title track contains the lyric, “God is a lusty tire fire.” The songs on the album are vocally delicate, too, like “Halls of Sarah” and “Sleep All Summer,” a lovely collaboration with Eric Bachman).
More than any other album released in 2018, Hell-On rewards repeated listening. There are layers here, guys.
The second album on this list distributed by Thirty Tigers is Parker Milsap’s Other Arrangements (Oklahoma Records/Thirty Tigers), the countriest of country albums you’ll find here.
I fell hard for this guy in 2014. “Truck Stop Gospel” was one of my favorite songs of the year. He was back in 2016, but The Very Last Day didn’t do a ton for me. Other Arrangements, though, did a lot.
These songs are driven by Milsap’s scratchy vocals and lead guitar (the album art tells the story, really). Strings are employed sparingly and effectively. “Your Water” and “Gotta Get to You” are my favorites.
From the most country to the least, then. Pinegrove are an five man band from Montclair, New Jersey whose songs refer to ampersands and amulets with vocals you shouldn’t like but can’t resist. Their debut LP, Cardinal, was one of my favorite albums of in 2016, so I was ready for a follow up. Skylight (self released) was what I was waiting for.
There’s a story here, too, having to do with the band’s lead singer and songwriter being accused of sexual misconduct, disappearing for awhile, and then facing the music. Quinn Moreland at Paste explained it all helpfully in his review of Skylight. It’s why the album was self-released and why the proceeds from all the sales are going to charity.
The songs on Skylight are shorter than you want them to be (11 songs in 30 minutes?), and they hit a certain emo/pop nerve, even while being awash in a twangy soundscape. “Lush” is the word I’m looking for. “Rings” and “Angelina” are my favorites.
To Will Hoge, Skylight is long by about a minute. His quick-and-dirty 2018 album My American Dream (EDLO Records/Thirty Tigers) is the last one on this collection and is only 29 minutes long.
This guy has been recording albums since 2001, but I hadn’t heard any of them until now. I read a review on American Songwriter and added it to my Spotify library but didn’t get around to playing it until “Nikki’s A Republican Now” came up during a shuffle of my entire song library. I was like, “Who is that?” and I played the whole album that minute.
28 minutes later I canonized it in the 2018 albums list. I mean, if you’re looking for a collection of angry foot-stomping protest songs, you can hardly do better. “Thoughts And Prayers” is the center of gravity, and the song that birthed the project. Hoge wrote it in response to that phrase’s gross usage by political leaders after yet another school shooting (Parkland). Then he let loose on income disparity, racism, and xenophobia, to name but a few social ills.