Best Albums of 2018 - Two Views

For the 10th consecutive year, Larry Van Cleve and I have selected what we feel are the finest albums released during the past year. As usual, our lists are quite different; and although we did agree on a few things, it's always fun to check out the stuff we didn't hear, or ignored, the first time around that made the other's list.

 Dr. J's Best Albums of 2018 (in alphabetical order by artist name)

Amanda Shires – "To The Sunset". Amanda's new album rocks harder than anything she's released to this point. Besides being visually stunning, she has a great voice that sounds kind of like a blend of Emmylou Harris and a young Dolly Parton. Her progressive collection of new songs push the envelope for women working in the Americana genre. Favorite tracks: "Swimmer", "Leave It Alone", "Break Out The Champagne", and "White Feather". Watch a live performance of "Leave it Alone":

Beatles – "The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album)". I opted for the remixed version of the original double album that included a disk of the Esher Demos. Giles Martin did an outstanding job on the remix, and it's every bit as good as the one he did on last year's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". But the killer is the Esher Demos disk – recorded by the Beatles at George Harrison's home studio. Absolutely incredible and a must-have for fans. Favorite tracks: They're all great, but I'll go with "Sour Milk Sea", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Dear Prudence", and "Cry Baby Cry". Watch a new video for "Glass Onion" 2018:

Bettye LaVette - "Things Have Changed": America's greatest songwriter meets one of Michigan's greatest song interpreters. LaVette eschews some of the more obvious choices from the Dylan catalogue and explained in a recent interview how she made her selections. "I live inside songs and they have to actually do something to me. They have to hurt me or tickle me or interest me in the way they are put together." The album was produced by Steve Jordan and includes a guest appearance by Keith Richards. Favorite Tracks: "Things Have Changed", "Political World", "The Times They Are a-Changin'", "Do Right To Me Baby". Listen to "Political World":

Bob Dylan – "More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14". This single CD edition of Dylan's Bootleg Series presents an alternative version of his classic "Blood On The Tracks" album along with one bonus song not included on the original. After the cover and liner notes had gone to press, Dylan decided to rerecord the album, and it was that version that was released in 1975. "More Blood, More Tracks" lets us listen to it the way it was originally conceived, and it is magnificent. Dylan at his most intimate. Favorite tracks: "Tangled Up In Blue", "Simple Twist of Fate", "Buckets Of Rain", and "Up To Me". Listen to "Simple Twist of Fate" (take 1):

Bob Seger & The Last Heard – "Heavy Music: The Complete Cameo Recordings 1966-1967". This long-overdue collection of Seeger's earliest recordings only has ten songs, but they clearly indicated, over 50 years ago, that he was an artist on his way to the top. Now that the Cameo songs have finally been released, how about a collection of early Seger recordings from 1968 to 1974? Favorite tracks: "East Side Story", "Persecution Smith", "Chain Smokin'", and "Heavy Music Pt. 1". Watch a vintage video performance of "East Side Story":

Buddy Guy – "The Blues is Alive and Well". At 82, Buddy Guy is the last of the great Chicago blues artists that emerged in the 1950s, and, remarkably, his voice and guitar playing are as strong as ever. The album features Mick Jagger on harmonica on one track, and the guitars of Jeff Beck and Keith Richards on another, but this collection is all about Buddy Guy. Buddy's goal with this album was to keep the Chicago blues alive for a new audience. Mission accomplished. Favorite tracks: "Cognac", "The Blues is Alive And Well", "Whiskey For Sale", and "Ooh Daddy". Listen to "Cognac":

Calexico – "The Thread That Keeps Us". This album goes in a host of different musical direction which is, I guess, why it appeals to me. Living up to its name, Calexico mixes sounds associated with both California and Mexico in its varied musical palette. Favorite tracks: "End Of The World With You", "Voices In The Field", "Dead In The Water", and "Music Box". Watch the lyric video for "Under The Wheels":

Coral – "Move Through The Dawn". Sounding like a lost album from 1978 made by members of the Electric Light Orchestra and Supertramp, the 11 songs by English rock band, The Coral, provide a wealth of ear candy packed snugly into just 35 minutes. Favorite tracks: "Eyes Like Pearls", "She's A Runaway", "Strangers In The Hollow", and "Under Cover of The Night". Watch the video for "Eyes Like Pearls":

Death Cab For Cutie – "Thank You For Today". This was the group's first album without founding member Chris Walla, but the band rose to the occasion with a fine collection of melancholy pop songs. A very nice listen from start to finish. Favorite tracks: "I Dreamt We Spoke Again", "Your Hurricane", "When We Drive", and "Northern Lights". Listen to "Northern Lights":

Greta Van Fleet – "Anthem of the Peaceful Army". The knock on this young band is that they sound too much like Led Zeppelin. They are nowhere near as powerful, but what impressed me is the quality of their original material. Unlike the many bands that aspired to sound like Led Zep, Greta Van Fleet's songs have the tunefulness and dynamics of their mentors. I've always enjoyed bands that were inspired by the Beatles or Stones and managed to come fairly close; and I approached Greta Van Fleet's debt to Led Zeppelin the same way. Favorite tracks: "The Cold Wind", "When The Curtain Falls", "Mountain Of The Sun", and "Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)". Watch the video for "When The Curtain Falls":

Guided By Voices – "Space Gun". Most of Robert Pollard's recordings with Guided By Voices sounded to me like collections of weird unfinished demos with the potential to become very good albums, but were never realized. That's part of the charm for many listeners, but I always felt that if those songs would have been better served by applying a more traditional band approach. "Space Gun" goes in that direction; still weird but with very rewarding results. Favorite tracks: "Arch Technician", "Space Gun", See My Field", and "I Love Kangaroos". Watch the video for "Space Gun":

Holly Golightly – "Do The Get Around". I was knocked out by Holly's sultry voice and her songs that are kind of a combination of rockabilly and garage rock, but are very much in her own distinct style. A British singer/songwriter, I was surprised to learn that she has recorded over a dozen albums both solo and in a variety of groups - she even sang on a White Stripes song on their "Elephant" album. Favorite tracks: "Satan is his Name", "Quicksand", "The Get Along", and "Hypnotized". Listen to "The Get Along":

James Hunter Six – "Whatever It Takes". I'm a big fan of 50s-60s-70s R&B/Soul music, and this is where the sound of the James Hunter Six resides. Hunter's soulful voice is a modern combination of Sam Cooke and Al Green, and the band is as tight as a sexy woman's spandex dress. Favorite tracks: "I Don't Wanna Be Without You", "Whatever It Takes", "I Should've Spoke Up, and "Show Her". Watch the video for "I Don't Wanna Be Without You":

Johnny Marr – "Call The Comet". Marr's third solo release is a triumph. The former Smiths' guitarist has put together a very consistent album filled with strong songs that feature his signature playing; and it includes a couple of tunes that would have fit perfectly on any of the Smiths' records. Favorite tracks: "Hey Angel", "Hi Hello", "Day In Day Out", and "Actor Attractor". Watch the video for "Hi Hello":

Magpie Salute – "High Water 1". Magpie Salute's debut brings to mind some of the great blues rock albums of the 70s, but definitely with the emphasis being on laid-back bluesy grooves. Nice blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and I really like the gritty, soulful vocals. Favorite tracks: "High Water", "Sister Moon", "Color Blind", and "Can You See". Listen to "Sister Moon":

Motel Mirrors – "In The Meantime". This album sounds like it was recorded in the original Sun Studios in 1957. Motel Mirrors is sort of a Memphis super group combining the talents of three of the city's talented solo artists (Amy LeVere, John Paul Keith, and Will Sexton) to produce a thoroughly enjoyable collection of songs that manages to be both a throwback and forward thinking at the same time. Very cool. Favorite tracks: "Things I Learned", "Let Me Be Sweet to You", "Dead Of Winter Blues", and "Remember When You Gave A Damn". Watch a performance of "Let Me Be Sweet To You" at the Sun Studio:

Naked Sun – "War with Shadows". Although the band hails from Philadelphia, their debut album has a West Coast sheen that brings to mind all those great California-based albums of the 70s and 80s. That kind of smooth production works well with the songs of frontman Andrew Wesley Harris. Favorite tracks: "Do You Wanna Dance?", "Rose Gold", "Holdin' Back The Heart", and "Purple Sunset". Watch the video for "Holdin' Back The Heart":

Nothing – "Dance On The Blacktop". This album really took me by surprise. It's something of a combination of grunge and shoe-gaze with lots of big guitar, but also haunting vocals that you wouldn't think would necessarily work, but they do. The album kind of reminds me a little of the Cloud Nothings' "Life Without Sound" which was one of my faves from 2017. Favorite tracks: "Zero Day", "You Wind Me Up", "Hail On Palace Pier", and "(Hope) Is Just Another Word With A Hole In It". Watch the video for "Zero Day":

Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – "Years". Being a fan of classic outlaw country music, this is the genre's hands-down album of the year. Sarah's songs about whiskey nights, bad love, and things going to shit in general ring true and fit right in with all those broke down tunes of fellow outlaws Waylon Jennings and Steve Earle. The rocking Disarmers are the perfect match to Sarah's gritty, world-weary vocals. Favorite tracks: "Good As Gold", "Over You", "The Bottle Never Lets Me Down", and "Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don't". Watch the video for "The Bottle Never Lets Me Down":

Sunflower Bean – "Twentytwo in Blue". The Brooklyn-based indie band's second album has a good chance of crossing over to wider acceptance via Julia Cumming's vocals, which bring to mind Fleetwood Mac's Steve Nicks. Full of strong compositions, the album's title refers to the fact that all three members of the band were 22 years-old when it was recorded. Favorite tracks: "I Was A Fool", "Twentytwo", "Memoria", and "Oh No, Bye Bye". Watch the video for "I Was A Fool":

Ty Segall – "Freedom's Zombie". Seagall is the most prolific artist in punk rock, consistently putting out more than one album per year in an often dizzying combination of styles. Weighing in at 75 minutes in length, "Freedom's Zombie" is no exception; but somehow he makes it all work. Favorite Tracks: "Fanny Dog", "Every 1's A Winner". "I'm Free", and "She". Listen to "Fanny Dog":

Wild Feathers – "Greetings From The Neon Frontier". If you're a fan of the Eagles, like I am, you will really enjoy this album. Strong songs from start to finish with lots of guitars and sweet harmonies. Favorite tracks: "Quittin' Time", "Wildfire", "No Man's Land", and "Golden Days". Watch a live performance of "Quittin' Time":

*Honorable Mention:
Car Seat Headrest – "Twin Fantasy", Boz Scaggs – "Out Of The Blues", Amen Dunes – "Freedom", Beach House – "7".

Best CDs of 2018 by Larry Van Cleve

Everything on the main list below went right from my speakers onto the list. Little internal debate this year, the choices seemed obvious. Of course this meant some deserving artists missed the final cut mostly because there just wasn't room. Check the recommended list (as well as a few side trips along the way). Diversity and inventiveness shows rock is still well and alive in its many forms. With all the streaming choices available you can easily give this music a try. Enjoy.

1.) "Freedom's Goblin" – Ty Segall. This double album represents the evolution and summation of the work of Ty Segall. There's a lot here. As always the garage rock sound is prominent but (as he's done his whole career) he expands into other influences. An instinctive understanding of the music combined with a willingness to experiment makes for interesting listening indeed. He rocks out with the best ("She" is pure classic rock) and stretches the parameters of the music ("Talkin 3") and isn't beyond 12 minutes of excessive noodling (the closer "And, Goodnight"). His interplay with second guitarist Emmett Kelly is top notch and the addition of occasional horns fits nicely. If any of this has intrigued you, go ahead and indulge. (NOTE: Ty also released a covers album this year called "Fudge Sandwich" that's also worthy. Covers of tunes from the Dils to War to John Lennon to the Grateful Dead) Listen to "Every 1"s A Winner":

2.) "Boarding House Reach" - Jack White. Jack White is an artist not content to be narrowly defined. This is a solo album that really stretches his reach. Don't worry, the blues and rock are still there but he delves into funk, house, electronica, hip hop and just flat out sound experimentation. He hangs from a broken tree limb here folks and many times he almost crashes. At first listen I thought there were tracks I would be skipping. Subsequent listening made me anticipate those tunes. This Jack White guy may be someone to keep your eyes on. Watch the video for "Over And Over And Over":

3.) "Wide Awake!" - Parquet Courts. Hmmm. There seems to be a theme for these first three albums this year. Parquet Courts has always been a band willing to try on different influences (very successfully, this is their third album to make my list), but this album really pushes the buttons. Produced with Danger Mouse they venture into dance, funk, ska and beyond. Their basic punk pop sound is there but they are pushing that old envelope. Reminds me of late seventies/early eighties English bands like Gang of Four. Give 'em a try, you might be surprised. Watch the video for "Wide Awake":

4.) "Call The Comet" – Johnny Marr. Well known primarily for his stint as guitarist/songwriter for the Smiths, this is Johnny's third solo studio album. Utilizing all the positive qualities of Brit Rock combined with his own vision this seems like the best of his solo output. The layered sound is well produced and is a treat for these ears. Guitars meld with electonica and background vocals to form a wall of real song momentum throughout. And heck, you can dance to it. Watch the video for "Walk Into The Sea":

5.) "American Utopia" – David Byrne. Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne's solo output has been extensive and influential through the years starting with "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts" with Eno. "American Utopia" soaks up all his previous work and also starts with interpretations of Eno's soundscapes. The Talking Heads sound is there along with World Beat and varied electronic textures to form a crazy yet very appealing sound. The lyrical content parrots the title with both sarcasm and embrace. Quirky as he is, Byrne is one of the top rock artistes working today. Watch the video for "Everybody's Coming To My House":

6.) "13 Rivers" – Richard Thompson. Amazingly consistent, Richard Thompson regularly makes this list. There are certain bands and artists that fully deserve this (the late Tom Petty comes to mind) and there are no apologies from this fanboy. "13 Rivers" may be one of the best of his recent albums. Strong song craft and extraordinary guitar work are his hallmarks. The band, which has been together for awhile now, really comes into it's own. If you haven't examined the work of Richard Thompson I highly recommend you get started. He's one of the masters. Watch a performance of "The Rattle Within":

7.) "WAX" - KT Tunstall. The second part of a trilogy (the first being "KIN" in 2016), "WAX" showcases the Scottish artist's song writing strengths. Her pop sensibility is there with strong hooks and assured song construction. As with all really good albums, repeated listening causes one to eagerly anticipate certain tracks coming up. At some point before recording this album she was thinking of leaving the business. Be glad she didn't. Watch the video for "The River":

8.) "Quiet and Peace" – Buffalo Tom. An 80s/90s indie mainstay, this trio was known for heavy guitar oriented alt rock. Then they disappeared, came back in 2007, did a few albums and then nothing after 2011. Now they are back again and as talented as ever but obviously matured. Oh, they still rock but there's a sense that there's a lot more to these guys. Tight songs with the usual guitar, drums, bass setup and, this time around, keyboards are more prominent. It all comes together with a varied menu this time around. Buffalo Tom has learned a lot through the years and it really shows. Great album. Watch the video for "Roman Cars":

9.) "Port Saint Joe" - Brothers Osborne. Follow up album to their debut, this is basically country rock that delves into rock, blues, country, funk and beyond but maintains a basic loping groove with outstanding vocals and production. That they really enjoy what they are doing is quite apparent as you venture through their album. A good time, get ready to bop your head and tap your feet. Watch the video for "Shoot Me Straight":

10.) "Greetings From The Neon Frontier" The Wild Feathers. There's an encyclopedia of rock history in the grooves of this album. It rocks in all the expected forms (blues, country, hard rock). Listen to each track and classic bands quickly come to mind, but they are not just imitators. These are solid songs that may wear their influences on their sleeve but stand proudly on their own. Think of everyone from Petty to Mellencamp to the Eagles and beyond. This is one band to pay attention to. (By the way, they are touring with the Brothers Osborne. Quite the concert I'd say). Watch the video for "Big Sky":

11.) "Francis Trouble" - Albert Hammond Jr. The fourth solo album by the Strokes guitarist is one of his best. Quirky from the concept (his stillborn twin brother's fingernail) to the lyrics, it's the music that really shines. Deftly constructed emo(tional) pop with great guitars and hooks, the vocals and choruses are really assured. Good stuff. Watch the video for "Set To Attack":

12.) "Warm" – Jeff Tweedy. How does this guy do it to me every time? Much like several recent Wilco albums that have a way of sneaking up on you, I approached this first totally solo Tweedy album with lowered expectations. Then, I couldn't stop listening to the damn thing. Low key and more ballad oriented, it feels like a new Wilco album. I imagined it would be more acoustic (and it is) but the instrumentation on the individual tracks is outstanding. Twangy guitar, pedal steel and various percussion backing add that extra touch. Since it came out late in this year I'm still critically listening to this one. "Warm" could easily become my favorite of the year. (Does anyone else hear traces of John Lennon in Tweedy's ballads?) Watch the video for "I Know What It's Like":

13) "The Beatles" – The Beatles. Major event. The remastering by Giles Martin is superlative. The drums and bass especially take a major upgrade as well as the usual "I didn't hear that before" syndrome. The Esher Demos disk by Paul, John and George in George's house is essential to understanding the Beatles song creation process. If you elect to dig deep for the Deluxe Edition you also get three disks of outtakes and rehearsals and a book that is simply beautiful and superb in its contents. Each track's sessions are fully explained and the tracks in this set, as well as "The Anthology" box set, are pointed to. I cannot say enough about this release. Watch the lyric video for "Back In The U.S.S.R." 2018:

14) The State Of Metal. This is a bit of an aside here. The metal scene has always interested me with its many genres and fan bases. This year several new (or fairly new) bands in the hard rock/metal world have come to the fore and are gaining a lot press (and packing in larger venues). Foremost (possibly because they are from Michigan) are Greta Van Fleet with "Anthem Of The Peaceful Mind". From England comes The Struts with "Young & Dangerous" as well as Sweden's Ghost with "Prequelle" (thanks to Eddie Trunk for pointing this one out). While I'm not totally sold on these bands, the growing success of their tours show that something is happening here and my ears are open. Greta Van Fleet are touted as Led Zep reincarnated and that's a rather heavy mantle to wear. The Strut's vocalist is definitely from the Freddie Mercury school. Ghost is a real NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) influenced group. This is a movement that started in the late 70's to the early eighties and includes Iron Maiden, Venom, Def Leppard, Saxon et al. The Strut's are the most radio worthy with a pop Metal feel that's arena friendly. Ghost is more in the Heavy Metal vein with dark lyrics and excellent production (especially on the bottom). I think Greta is a work in progress that needs to solidify their own sound but the talent is there. Worth checking these bands out. Watch the video for "Body Talks" featuring Kesha:

Recommended List.

  • "All My Shades Of Blue" – The Ruen Brothers. Are these guys 50's rock ballad purists? Sure, but it isn't as if they haven't taken in all the rock history since then (as well as all the technological changes), incorporated what they wanted but still deferred to the source material they loved. Complicated? Naw, just really a lot of fun. Produced by Rick Rubin.
  • "Motel La Grange" – The National Reserve. Brooklyn band that deftly plays roots music in a classic rock n roll mode. They almost made the final list. This is their first album so look out in the future. The first half of the album is impressive.
  • "Years" – Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. Good band, great vocalist. They play working class country rock written by singer Sarah. She is quite the talent.
  • "Digital Garbage" – Mudhoney. The grunge founders put on their Iggy Stooge rock out. They've still got it!
  • "Elastic Days" – J. Mascis. A suprisingly addictive Dinosaur Jr. sound with a largely acoustic ballad feel. Definitely a must for fans.
  • "Do The Get Along" – Holly Golightly. Holly has a deep music history, well worth delving into. She covers blues, country, pop, indie and all that with various bands. For this solo effort prepare to be grooving your head back and forth with a smile on your face.
  • "Children Of Paradise" – Willie Nile. A political album by Willie with the usual rock, garage and punk roots. Willie Nile fans will find it tasty.

*NOTE: Came across many excellent solo albums by the likes of Willie Nelson, Tom Rush, John Oates, Ry Cooder and Matthew Sweet. Lots of music history there.