Melody and Magic
PHOTO CREDIT: @sethmacey/Unsplash
The Best Folk, Americana and Country Albums of 2018
I am keen to celebrate the best albums of the year...
IN THIS PHOTO: First Aid Kit/PHOTO CREDIT: Nate Ryan/MPR
and, in this feature, break it down by genre and highlight the finest from each. This time around, I am focusing on Folk, Americana and Country. They are genres that do not get the same acclaim and focus as, say, Pop and Rock. I think it is unfair because, as we can see from the records below, there is so much quality and variety to be found in the genres. Have a look and listen to the best Americana, Folk and Country albums of 2018 and I am sure there is going to be an album in the list...
IN THIS PHOTO: Mount Eerie/PHOTO CREDIT: Jordan Stead
THAT lodges firmly in the mind.
ALL ALBUM COVERS: Getty Images
Lori McKenna – The Tree
Date of Release: 20th July, 2018
Label: CN Records
Producer: Dave Cobb
“You can maybe guess the quality and sound of The Tree from noting that it’s produced by Dave Cobb, who also plays guitar: he’s been a common thread on much of the best country over recent years, working with artists who favour small band set-ups, rather then pop country’s flash and bang. McKenna’s and his styles are perfectly suited to each other: a gentle lollop, a hint of twang, letting the lyrics do the lifting.
And McKenna’s eye for detail is terrific: the man who’s “got bicycle tires and lawn mower parts / Miles of wires and kitchen drawer knobs”, but no idea what parts he needs to mend his marriage (The Fixer), or the woman who will “spray the soap from the bathroom tiles / Cut the threads off the kitchen towels”, knowing her husband won’t notice she’s left (You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone). It’s an album for grown-ups, contemplative and wise” – The Guardian
Standout Tracks: A Mother Needs Rest/The Tree/You Can’t Break a Woman
Finest Cut: The Fixer
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Date of Release: 30th March, 2018
Label: MCA Nashville
Producers: Dave Tashian/Ian Fitchuk/Kacey Musgraves
“Musgraves doesn't mine this vein, preferring a soft, blissed-out vibe to skittering rhythms and fleet rhymes. At their core, the songs on Golden Hour -- largely co-written with Musgraves by her co-producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, but also featuring Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally, among other collaborators -- don't play with form: they are classic country constructions, simply given productions that ignore country conventions from either the present or the past. This is a fearless move, but Golden Hour is hardly confrontational. It's quietly confident, unfurling at its own leisurely gait, swaying between casual confessions and songs about faded love. The very sound of Golden Hour is seductive -- it's warm and enveloping, pitched halfway between heartbreak and healing -- but the album lingers in the mind because the songs are so sharp, buttressed by long, loping melodies and Musgraves' affectless soul-baring. Previously, her cleverness was her strong suit, but on Golden Hour she benefits from being direct, especially since this frankness anchors an album that sounds sweetly blissful, turning this record into the best kind of comfort: it soothes but is also a source of sustenance” – AllMusic
Standout Tracks: Butterflies/Space Cowboy/Wonder Woman
Finest Cut: High Horse
Mount Eerie – Now Only
Date of Release: 30th March, 2018
Label: P.W. Elverum & Sun
Producer: Phil Elverum
“Now Only is just as devastatingly direct, but there are glimmers of catharsis—of light gleaming in tears, as Elverum puts it. Where Crow occupied a numb, purgatorial present tense, the new record leaps around like a wandering mind, to vivid anecdotes from the singer-songwriter’s past. Now Only also hesitantly reintroduces some sonic variety, augmenting Crow’s stark, plainspoken folk; in this context, the crunch of doom-metal guitar on “Distortion” sounds almost hopeful, to say nothing of the hint of humor—and the presence of an actual, ironically catchy chorus—on the title track. Elverum may spend the rest of his career grappling with his grief. It’s a tough, beautiful privilege to be invited along on that journey” – The A.V. Club
Standout Tracks: Tintin in Tibet/Earth/Two Paintings by Nikolai Astrup
Finest Cut: Distortion
Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You
Date of Release: 16th February, 2018
Labels: Low Country Sound/Elektra
Producers: Dave Cobb/Shooter Jennings
““Everytime I Hear That Song” takes on one of the oldest heartache clichés in all of country music: the notion of suddenly remembering an ex-lover when your favorite song comes on the radio. Carlile’s less interested in mining her loneliness than she is in seizing forgiveness as a source of strength: “After all, maybe I should thank you/For giving me what I found/’Cause without you around, I’ve been doing just fine.” There’s an expression of vulnerability here, yet that’s not how the song is defined. She takes control, forgives even if she can’t forget, and presents it as a song of empowerment.
Subject matter like this can sometimes make By the Way, I Forgive You a heavy listen, and there are times when it’s hard not to miss some of the loose, limber rock of 2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter. Then again, channeling haunted, harrowing songs into moments of liberation and catharsis has always been Carlile’s gift. Here, she’s not only created some of her most fully realized characters—tough and vulnerable in equal measure—but she’s found her most sympathetic collaborators, making By the Way, I Forgive You the most emotionally direct and revealing album she’s to released to date” – Slant Magazine
Standout Tracks: Every Time I Hear That Song/The Mother/Harder to Forgive
Finest Cut: The Joke
Richard Thompson – 13 Rivers
Date of Release: 14th September, 2018
Label: New West Records
Producer: Richard Thompson
“Hearing Thompson and his band dig into these songs is truly satisfying, and as usual, he's left us no doubt that he's a master tunesmith, in particular in the troubled introspection of "The Storm Won't Come," the edgy contemplation of the unreliable inner voice in "The Rattle Within," the toxic certainty of "You Can't Reach Me," and the uncomfortable obsession of "She Was Meant for Me." The wit that usually dilutes the darker moments on a Thompson album is, for the most part, conspicuous in its absence on 13 Rivers (though it's briefly evident on "O Cinderella"), but it does give this set a thematic consistency that's effective, and Thompson's vocals are superb throughout, making the most of his dour but incisive stories. 13 Riversisn't an unusual Richard Thompson album in most respects, but it is one that makes the most of his craft as a guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader. Not many artists continue to create bold, compelling work that doesn't sound like it's treading creative water after a half-century, but 50 years on from Fairport Convention's debut LP, 13 Rivers is striking music from a musician who remains fresh, contemporary, and peerless” – AllMusic
Standout Tracks: Her Love Was Meant for Me/The Dog in You/No Matter
Finest Cut: The Storm Won’t Come
Haley Heynderickx – I Need to Start a Garden
Date of Release: 9th March, 2018
Label: Mama Bird Recording Co.
“Aside from the occasional flourish of strings and piano or cacophonous horns, Haley largely confines herself to a lone guitar, which allows her soft vocals and colourful lyrics to take centre stage. ‘No Face’ reaches an almost Angel Olsen-esque climax as soft coos evolve into a warbling vibrato. ‘The Bug Collector’ creates a magical atmosphere as she sings about a “praying mantis in the bathtub” and a “millipede on the carpet” as metaphors for her religious past - a theme that reappears on ‘Untitled God Song’. ‘Worth it’, meanwhile, recalls Pavement-style rock’n’roll at points, in an eight-minute highlight that metamorphoses between sliding arpeggios and angsty power chords.
‘I Need To Start A Garden’ is largely a subtle and restrained record, and aside from the tangible vocal refrain of ‘Oom Sha La’, there are few traditionally-structured pop songs. Deep inside this warm collection of songs, though, there is a delicate charm to be found. Tender without being twee, this debut LP ultimately captures a moment that is both genuine and touching” – DIY
Standout Tracks: The Bug Collector/Worth It/Drinking Song
Finest Cut: Show You a Body
First Aid Kit – Ruins
Date of Release: 19th January, 2018
Producer: Tucker Martine
“Their lyrics exhibit a sharp, unsentimental eye for the forensics of failing relationships, but the buoyancy of their harmonies acts as a counterweight to the loneliness inherent in the subject matter. Fireworks is a beautiful song of thwarted longing, steeped in Roy Orbison-esque melancholy, but the tightly bound twin vocal means you don’t imagine the narrator going through it alone.
The delightful Hem of Her Dress comments on the mechanics of a break-up (“So here we go again/ I know how this one ends”) but concludes with a cheery singalong, a roomful of beery, cheery voices toasting the inevitable.
This quality of unity lends their tales of failed romance an implicit, feminist strength. First Aid Kit sooth the pain of heartbreak with the balm of sisterhood” – The Telegraph
Standout Tracks: Rebel Heart/It’s a Shame/Ruins
Finest Cut: Fireworks
Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain
Date of Release: 23rd March, 2018
“It’s one of the elements – along with the organ and Mark Howard’s spacious but focused production – that gives the album an unusual intensity. May Your Kindness Remain sounds forever on the brink of eruption – no shucks-we-were-drinking-beer-in-your-truck here. Andrews has said the theme of the album is coming to terms with depression, which you can sense without even listening to the lyrics.
Amid the misery, though, there is a search for moments of levity. This House is a long way from Madness’s house or Graham Nash’s house – “Empty cans on the counter / And the laundry’s never done,” Andrews sings, detailing the shortcomings of the surroundings, even as she insists “this house ain’t much of a house, but it’s a home”. May Your Kindness Remain confirms Andrews’ rise. It’s a brilliant record, proof that old forms can still be timeless” – The Guardian
Standout Tracks: Two Cold Nights in Buffalo/Border/This House
Finest Cut: May Your Kindness Remain
John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
Date of Release: 13th April, 2018
Label: Oh Boy Records
Producer: Dave Cobb
““Summer’s End” evokes the seasonal sanctuary of home for the lonely. Prine stretches each line’s last word out companionably, but the warm welcome is really extended by phrases of folksy, funny surrealism. In Prine country, “the moon and stars hang out in bars/just talkin’”. “Caravan of Fools”, by contrast, sees him lower his cancer-scratched voice to one of biblical portent, for an ominous tale recalling Cormac McCarthy’s fated characters.
Some songs are genuinely slight. “Lonesome Friends of Science”, though, is a modest masterpiece, sharing the weary worldliness and loping stride of his contemporary Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”. An organ whistles in amiably as if from some long-gone Dylan Nashville session, as Prine’s ornery narrator stays free in his mind from the demands of a troublesome, rational world.
Prine’s stance has stayed askew. Yet these songs are solid like good chairs you can settle into for a while” – The Independent
Standout Tracks: Knockin’ on Your Screen Door/No Ordinary Blue/Boundless Love
Finest Cut: Summer’s End
Devin Dawson – Dark Horse
Date of Release: 19th January, 2018
Label: Warner Bros.
Producer: Jay Joyce
“In particular, the reliance on sturdy, melodic songs distinguishes Dark Horse from amorphous, EDM-flavored pop; the electronic flair is merely flair, never distracting from the tunes. If Dawson tends to slip into the production instead of demanding attention, it only accentuates how Dark Horse cultivates a cool vibe in both senses of the word: the album is hip and it runs cold, not hot. This sensibility means that it can slip by upon the first listen, but like most pop music designed to endure repeated spins, either on personalized playlists or radio, Dark Horse reveals its sly gifts upon repeated plays. By the third or fourth time these songs are heard, this low-key music gains definition and its melodies, along with its post-genre sheen, are beguiling” – AllMusic
Standout Tracks: Second to Last/Symptoms/War Paint
Finest Cut: All on Me
Ashley McBryde – Girl Going Nowhere
Date of Release: 30th March, 2018
Label: Warner Bros. Nashville
Producer: Jay Joyce
“The title track of McBryde’s Girl Going Nowhere is a whispered anthem about crushing it in the face of doubters. Most triumphant artists would holler, gloat, swagger, flip the bird, but in this opener, McBryde barely raises her voice, which quivers potently over a muted snare, guitar notes flashing like phone screens in a dark arena. Then “Radioland” crashes in, a country rocker about old-time broadcast bliss, invoking John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” and McBryde’s daddy, “a rock star riding on a tractor listening to Townes Van Zandt.” (That songwriting giant Van Zandt got scant love from radio just makes the song’s vision sweeter.) “Southern Babylon” evokes the smoky country soul of Memphis, where McBryde logged time in bar bands. “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You)” depicts true love as a holy pathology; “Livin’ Next to Leroy” is a Southern-rock conjuring of a drug buddy who ends up dead on his sofa. McBryde’s got a big, vibrato-tinged alto, biker-chick style, and she wrote or co-wrote everything here, including “Dahlonega,” with a sharp eye for piercing detail. She has a serious gift” – Rolling Stone
Standout Tracks: Radioland/Livin’ Next Door to Leroy/Tired of Being Happy
Finest Cut: American Scandal
Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
Date of Release: 2nd November, 2018
Label: RCA Records Nashville
Producers: Frank Liddell/Glen Worf/Eric Mauss
“The Annies admire brazen Cheyenne and behold their ex’s new wife with wistfulness as they sing from the perspective of women abandoned by hope, yet not cheated of empathy. Milkman’s older mother is uptight, but the song’s rueful tone and acoustic intimacy sketch the limitations of her life. The mariachi brass on Leavers Lullaby accentuates the sad fate of a woman “paying what it cost to feel so free”. Commissary breaks into a psychedelic reverie as another mother refuses to fund her child’s prison account: as she repeats her tough-love position, the words echo sombrely, highlighting her guilt. There’s so little light here that the cheeky Sugar Daddy is forgivable – plus there’s a forthrightness to their exhortations to “saddle up and ride” that adds to their theme of women without time to waste” – The Guardian
Standout Tracks: Stop Drop and Roll One/Cheyenne/Sugar Daddy
Finest Cut: Got My Name Changed Back