2018 In Review: Roots Radio's Outstanding and Essential Albums of the Year

Dec 16, 2018

To those who orient their listening life around roots and Americana, the prophets of doom who say the album is dying sound especially misguided. While we are enjoying more releases of one-off songs, video singles and EPs, the album remains the aspirational statement of serious recording artists in Americana. It’s our novel, our feature film. It’s not going anywhere, and this year’s harvest of LPs is proof. This list is curated with input from the WMOT staff but the final choices were made by the author with a critic’s ear for substance and a journalist’s eye for storylines and impact. Here, in arbitrary order and with an appreciative bias toward Nashville’s remarkable creative community, are 30 outstanding albums that we’ll reach for years from now when we want to remember the sound of 2018.

John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness

He’s still the working class poet who conjured up a genius debut album while delivering the mail in Chicago’s winters. He’s not lost an ounce of wit, wordplay and wry observation. But now Prine exudes a wise and magnanimous spirit that can only come with age. Thirteen long years had elapsed since his prior solo album of new songs, and this beatific set was received with overwhelming acclaim and affection.

Erin Rae – Putting On Airs

Recorded in the dead of winter at an artist colony in rural Wisconsin, Erin Rae’s second LP has a minimalist mood. But there’s nothing cold about the songs, which share the struggles of coming out in her constricting hometown and defining an identity in the world of art in the nearby big city of Nashville. Rae’s music is mesmerizing and fills a lot of sonic space with a few graceful gestures.

The Travelin’ McCourys – Self-titled

Waiting more than a decade to record a debut album isn’t recommended, but in fairness, these fellows were busy in their role as the Del McCoury Band besides Del. As a side and support project, The TMCs have honed a sound and repertoire playing shows and festivals. Here they glide through a variety of self-written tunes and cool covers, heralding the next generation of string band greatness.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

From first listen, there was little doubt the iconoclastic and independent Musgraves had made an excellent album. With time and with a CMA Album of the Year title and huge Grammy prospects, the dream-pop opus appears destined for greatness. Musgraves sought out production and writing partners that unlocked new potential with a fully realized esthetic that’s both comforting and hallucinogenic.

Birdtalker – One

Young married couple Zach and Dani Green started writing songs together on a lark, gathered some friends into a humble folk rock band, and unexpectedly took off with the hit “Heavy.” Their personal chemistry is matched with uncanny instincts for unpretentious beauty and expressed truth. With a November Opry debut capping off a big year, they may be the fastest-rising act in Music City, and this soothing, thoughtful album is testimony they deserve it.

Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake

Few if any of Baxter’s peers succeed so audaciously in the space where late career Beatles meets Music City songcraft. Wide Awake was written over many weeks in a state of solitude then recorded in a scintillating collaboration with trusted musician friends. Colorful, profound, timely and hooky, this is a masterwork that requires no work to love.

Cordovas – That Santa Fe Channel

This nimble five-piece band emerged gradually, as wildly talented songwriter/singer Joe Firstman rebuilt his career and identity after a major label adventure. With tightly stacked harmonies and worked out twin guitar vamps, they evoke the vibe of the Grateful Dead and the musicianship of The Band. These songs defy easy explanation, but they sound like 1970s earthy album rock of the finest vintage.

Lori McKenna – The Tree

The Massachusetts-Nashville commuting, songwriting mother superstar is on quite a roll. Her two productions in a row with Dave Cobb feel like companions, as do her songs. Her domestic miniatures, replete with details, don’t relate huge swooning crises or ecstasies, but the slow change and sustenance of life. The heart on the cover is a tree, and a tree is a beating heart if you’re patient with it.

Dom Flemons – Black Cowboys

No album released this year has more to teach us about American history and how we depict ourselves. It’s a song collection and an astutely researched study of largely invisible working men to whom we owe a great debt. With a mix of traditional and original narrative songs, Flemons is fearless in his explorations, high minded in his expectations and generous with his spirit.

Robben Ford – Purple House

Perpetually under-appreciated except by his fellow musicians, Ford’s a roots and blues artist with pedigree and refinement, and his many gifts are synergistically expressed here. Exceptional singing, songwriting and guitar work are elevated by thoughtful arrangements and architecture of sometimes tricky songs. But it never lacks for soul.

Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain

Her burnished, tremulous voice evokes the emotional seduction of Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt of the early 1970s, but her songs make it clear she’s courageously piloting a boat tossing in modern seas. She writes of urban decay, the plight of the immigrant and the fundamental human empathies that could ease our tumult.

Mary Gauthier – Rifles & Rosary Beads

So much more than another volume of fine songs, this album is an iceberg, with only the tip of the emotional and physical implications of trauma visible. Gauthier’s ability to co-write with non writers and make such poetry is a testament to her listening skills, her empathy and her visceral understanding of sacrifice. This is the kind of patriotism we need more of.

Amy Helm – This Too Shall Light

She says she’s been cautious about taking on the front-woman role, but Helm’s background with her father Levon and the folk band Olabelle took on a momentum of its own. Produced with sonic wizard Joe Henry, this gospel-inflected project is roots perfection – honest, innovative and timeless.

Punch Brothers – All Ashore

Chris Thile and his “brothers” scratch a particular musical itch, so the wait for this latest album grew agonizing as the guys pursued various side projects. Reunited at last, they created as they do, with an ensemble hive mind and astonishing sophistication. Yet down there at the heart of it all is a great American bluegrass band that just wants to do something new.

Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You

Carlile was a force field this year at many levels, amplifying the cause for women in the music business, moving a rained-out festival set to an indoor make-up on a few hours’ notice and releasing this monumental but intimate album. With six Grammy nominations, it seems the world at large has finally noticed her unique and deeply beautiful sound and spirit.

Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains

His momentous baritone will stop you cold, and then it will tell you a tale from bygone times. Wall comes from a prominent family in Saskatchewan, but his old soul communes effortlessly with the cowboys of the Canadian plains and their lore. The mix of original and inherited folk songs on just his second full length album suggests that the spirit of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Don Edwards lives on in this uncanny 25 year old.

Aaron Lee Tasjan – Karma For Cheap

East Nashville’s shaggy chic needed a bit of glam, and Tasjan brought it from his previous life in the New York Dolls. His tuneful, psychedelic power pop borrows just enough from country to keep it grounded. Karma follows up 2016’s Silver Tears with coherence and evolution. And the reason it all works so well is that his essential kindness and decency as a guy shines through the stylish exterior.

Anna & Elizabeth – The Invisible Comes To Us

Folk music needs refreshment and these song-hunting, idea-expanding women have tapped a new wellspring. They’ve earned critical praise for their visually transfixing stage shows and the interlaced patterns made by their sturdy, lonesome voices. Here the focus is on orchestrating old songs for the cyber age, with sounds not always identifiable, but invariably fascinating.

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Years

Her voice blasts out of the speakers like a righteous wind, cultivating a rare and spectacular blend of punky impudence and worldly wisdom, all nested tightly in hard honky tonk that slides and buzzes with the blues. Her debut in 2015 was good, and the relentless touring and focus led to one of the best sophomore albums of recent years.  

Joshua Hedley – Mr. Jukebox

When your sonic template is borrowed lock, stock and teardrops from 1960s Owen Bradley, you could be docked for having half your choices made for you. But with a voice this rich, songs this evocative and total command of tone, Hedley has given us the heart-rending throwback we needed.

The Gibson Brothers – Mockingbird

The award winning bluegrass brother duo craved changed after more than a dozen string band albums. They found their vehicle in a production/songwriting collaboration with Dan Auerbach and Dave Ferguson in the old/new Nashville sweet spot of Easy Eye Sound. Don Williams, Charlie Rich and other 70s touchstones inform a surprising and deeply absorbing statement by guys who simply had more to offer.

Tim Easton – Paco & The Melodic Polaroids

Young throwback recordists at The Earnest Tube of Bristol TN/VA found common cause with Nashville’s folk soldier Tim Easton for a high-wire act of country music soul. Easton cut these songs live to lacquer disc in a historic building in the Appalachian foothills blocks from where the Carter Family started it all. We hear Tim pick guitar and sing with an honesty and presence that’s frankly shocking.

Alejandro Escovedo – The Crossing

The Mexican border cries out for songwriters and storytellers like almost nothing else in our fraught time, and it’s no surprise that Escovedo stepped up to set the plight to music. Two immigrants compare their stories and shared love of punk rock, in a song cycle that’s elegant, grave and beseeching. As for the sound and the feeling, nobody in the business has better, badder taste.

I’m With Her – See You Around

With their respective ties to innovative and virtuosic string band music and fondness for heady ideas, one is tempted to think of them as the Punch Sisters. But this acoustic supergroup of friends also has an earthy side that feels like a campfire jam. It would be hard to find a more luxurious sound than these three voices joined in song.

Mike Farris – Silver and Stone

He’s got one of Nashville’s great voices and stage presence all night, but Farris needed to take chances on his latest album. He did and is richly rewarded for it. We hear new textures and control, new ways of approaching songs, and what hearty, varied songs they are, nearly all by Farris himself. Garry West produced at Hillbilly Central for another Compass Records win.

Kevin Gordon – Tilt And Shine

Nothing comes out of Gordon’s studio until its ready and righteous enough for the long haul. He’s a Louisiana blues man with a master’s degree in literature and the eye of an art collector. Gordon’s Music City posse is all here, along with some new friends, and the music is as funky and truthful as ever. What’s Americana? C’mon man, this.

Guthrie Trapp – Life After Dark

Sideman is too confining a term for Trapp, one of the best guitar players in Nashville’s illustrious history and thus the world. He’s also a bandleader, producer, composer and master collaborator. This mix of instrumentals and songs, tapping Jimmy Hall, Bekka Bramlett, Sam Bush and more, is a Music City tour de force, a secret stash now available to all.

Shemekia Copeland – America’s Child

The blues singer’s musical excursions in Nashville have opened a new chapter in Copeland’s expansive career. Her love of the setting and of Will Kimbrough’s guitars and production gushes forth. But the ballast here is the message, a claim on the American dream on behalf of her forebears and her own child. “Would You Take My Blood?” she asks. We should be so lucky.

Rosanne Cash – She Remembers Everything

In a musical field rich with female songwriters, Cash is the one who best embodies the lineage in every respect, from American heritage to deft storytelling to the sumptuous aural experience. Her albums are not to be missed or listened to superficially. Here, she’s proudly over 60 and letting you in on exactly how that feels.

The Wood Brothers – One Drop Of Truth

When this “dropped” in early February, it set the tone for a stellar year. Bassist Chris Wood and drummer Jano Rix are a unified groove organism. Oliver’s seasoned voice can slay with a blues or a ballad. They’re the premiere roots power trio of our time, and this is their best in a string of gems.