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Shemekia Copeland's excellent "America's Child" tops RDR's Best of 2018 albums list

Mike White / Alligator Records
Shemekia Copeland's latest album is "America's Child" on Alligator Records.
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BEST ALBUMS OF 2018

Not surprisingly, a lot of the really good music released in the year 2018 highlighted the puzzling state of America and the world by offering up songs and albums that

But don’t go looking for answers (or questions) from the *acceptable pop artists of our day. That would be challenging the system just a little too much. Nope. Rather, you have to dig a little deeper to discover the singers and musicians who are keeping honest and real music styles, sounds and approaches alive.

That is why my list features a lot of artists who have been around for some time. No fly-by-night, AutoTuned phoney-baloney crapola, the saccharine malevolence that infects and destroys what is beautiful and true, not unlike “The Nothing” in The Neverending Story.

Sure, I’m an older guy. Set in my ways in some respects. But I know good music when I hear it. And while a lot of the folks on my list may not be “household names” these days, they deserve accolades and high praise for contributing to the betterment of their musical craft and to humanity in general.

So, when I thought long and hard about what albums meant most to me, blues singer Shemekia Copeland’s new album, America’s Child (Alligator) was the obvious choice. Particularly in a time when hatred and division seems to be spreading in society. Copeland offers an antidote through songs like “Americans” and “Would You Take My Blood?” And even that cool cover of The Kinks’ 1966 song “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” And to that, we cheer!

Louisiana singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier, who contributed songs and backing vocals to America’s Child said Copeland “is the real deal” and that “(h)er voice is nothing short of magic.”

Will Kimbrough, who produced the album and played guitar added, “Shemekia rears back her head and what comes out is humanity made vocal.” It’s true. Copeland, a new mother, is worried about the state of America and the state of the world, and what kind of world her child will grow up in. I believe music can contribute to healing the world. And America’s Child can only help in that regard.

Boy, he isn’t kidding. Every time I hear Copeland’s vocals on “Ain’t Got Time For Hate,” I feel a mental injection of inspiration and love coming from deep in her soul. She sings the lyrics as if she has embraced each and every word coming from out of her mouth and onto the recording.

Back in September, when I reviewed America’s Child, I said that this record would in all likelihood bring her “bold, bluesy sound to a far wider audience” and “(t)his is a breakthrough album for Copeland and should be in every American’s stocking this Christmas!” I stand by that statement. And you still have time to pick up America’s Child – the best album of 2018 – in time for the holiday. Cheers!

Cowboy Junkies – All That Reckoning (Latent)

It is hard for me to believe that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Cowboy Junkies’ breakthrough LP, The Trinity Session, which immediately turned me into a hardcore Junkies junky. And I was in good company. My gonzo idol, Doctor of Journalism Hunter S. Thompson, famously burned his Christmas tree on 1/9/90 (all filmed – watch it here) in his Owl Farm fireplace, while blasting “Misguided Angel,” a highlight on The Trinity Session. An apt song choice, I might add, as the dried-out evergreen explodes in flame and nearly burns down Hunter’s house. Another apt metaphor to describe the state of America and the world today.

So, the Canadian quartet has been much loved by many, lo these many years, and it was with waves of tingling excitement that I plunked All That Reckoning onto my hi-fi, allowing Margo Timmins’ sultry/ethereal vocals wash over me, while noting the hard-hitting lyrics take the sorry state of the world to task. Singing “Welcome to the age of dissolution / To the days of death and anger / Old ideas taking root … welcome, welcome” (on “When We Arrive”) and “Fear is not so far from hate / So if you get the folks to fear / It only takes one small twist / To kick it up a gear” (“The Things We Do To Each Other”).

Just so glad Cowboy Junkies are still out there, doing their thing, and doing it oh-so-well.

Eric Bachmann – No Recover (Merge)

Former Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann returned with a new album in 2018, No Recover, two years after his fanastic, self-titled solo outing that was on our list of best albums of 2016. 

And now, with No Recover, Bachmann is dialing things back just a bit, offering the listener a chance to explore the small town disappointments of the title track or the catastrophic nightmare of "Boom and Shake," a song that ends side one like one of my own baffling dreams. I suspect Eric and I aren't the only ones out there who have a creeping sense of doom as we scan the horizon.

I should say here that Bachmann's vocal delivery and minor chord choices touch something deep within me. More than once I discovered tears welling up as I played this record over and over.

Longtime musical collaborator and pal, Eric Johnson, of the Archers days, offers electric guitar on dreamy songs like "Waylaid." 

And love's depths go on into infinity on No Recover's closing track, "Dead and Gone," where Bachmann, playing that acoustic picking style of his, sings "When I'm dead and gone / As you carry on / When your dreams come true / You'll know what to do."

The Chills – Snow Bound (Fire Records)

So, as I was going over some previous pieces I had written about the New Zealand jangle-pop band The Chills, I stumbled on a 2017 Dust Devil Dreams post (Clear as crystal? (Maktub)), where a photo of an Economist article titled “The devils and the details” featured a photo of a dust devil (more on that in my Kevin Welch review), and, further down, thoughts on Chills singer/frontman Martin Phillipps and his 2015 comeback album Silver Bullets.

I wrote, in part: “There is clarity in Martin Phillipps's lyrics. Songs (which almost double as dreamscapes) about being kind to one another, eschewing intolerance and protecting the Earth, among other humanistic themes.

In the absolute gem of a song, "Molten Gold," which closes out Silver Bullets, Phillipps talks in almost alchemical terms, describing how feeling "richer than a billionaire" and how "the force which fired me felt like molten gold."  Wow!

Well, on Snow Bound, those themes return, on "Bad Sugar" ("In their small town library, they loan a single book / An impure old lure, with blood upon its hook / Of this wide world of wonder, they're scared to take a look / In case some foundation is shook") or on "Complex" ("all shades build a fairer nation / For until, none still fear to find a way / We're still a long way away, away, away") - among others. There is a subtle optimism here, amidst the melancholy jingle and the bittersweet notes from the keyboards and snapping snare drums. 

Phillipps and his Chills colleagues put a lot of personal energy and top-shelf musicianship into Snow Bound, while allowing the singer (who has had many crosses to bear over the years) to shine in ways I have not quite heard since Submarine Bells (1990) and Soft Bomb (1992). 

Kevin Welch – Dust Devil

And speaking of dust devils, one songwriter who has been around the block a time or two, yet one most country music fans have never heard of, in Kevin Welch, who released a stunner of a record this year simply titled Dust Devil.

And the album title is really referencing Welch himself, who in the title track (which actually closes out the 10-track album), where he uses the dust devil as a metaphor about his life, where "I was a panhandle dancer / Never knew where I belonged / I'd show up in the summer / Come the wintertime I'd be gone".

There's a reflective quality to these songs - all of which should become alt-country standards in their own right. "The Girl in the Seashell" has a certain longing about it, while the classy "High Heeled Shoes" shows off Welch's musical diversity, reminding me a bit of Chris Rea. And the sadness of "Dandelion Girl" and "Sweet Allis Chalmers" are nearly heartbreaking. Welch digs deep on Dust Devil, as he spins "'tween the earth and big wide open sky."

Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son (Fantasy / Perro Verde)

When  I reviewed Ry Cooder’s latest album, The Prodigal Son, back in August, I accidentally put it in the Dust Devil Dreams category on Red Dirt Report, rather than Rusty’s Music. Perhaps there was a reason for this?

Could be that the overt political nature and musical preachiness speaks to me, even in my dreams. Cooder knows exactly what he is doing when he sings “Jesus and Woody,” referencing two individuals who spoke up for the poor and downtrodden and criticized the hypocrites and pious liars who claim the Prince of Peace as their own.

The Prodigal Son, which I gave 5/5 Rusties to, gets better with each spin. Cooder still has it and thank God for that!

Buddy Guy – The Blues Is Alive and Well (RCA/Silvertone)

Buddy Guy is 82 years old and sounds 30 or 40 years younger than that on the fun and rollicking The Blues Is Alive and Well, produced by blues expert Tom Hambridge.

Whether collaborating with Keith Richards and Jeff Beck on "Cognac," or covering blues classics like Sonny Boy Williamson's "Nine Below Zero," Buddy Guy hits the bullseye on every track on The Blues Is Alive and Well - and he ain't kidding!

As I wrote in my recent review: "Please, Lord, please keep Buddy Guy alive for a long time yet! His music speaks to so many of us. The blues is a part of the human condition. That is why it resonates so much."

Guy's voice and guitar playing are still top-shelf, y'all. This was one of my top blues albums of 2018, and definitely among the best released this year - period.

Paul Weller - True Meanings (Parlophone)

Back in 2015, we awarded Paul Weller (The Jam, The Style Council) the "best of" album for that year for Saturns Pattern. Weller was in remarkable form, offering up rockers that featured his unique turns of phrase and rock n' roll heart. 

But, perhaps like Elvis Costello, Weller realizes he is a man of a certain age and figures it is time to offer up an album that is more peaceful and reflective at its heart and highlights his long-appreciated vocal talents. Classical guitar opens up "The Soul Searchers" (imagine him on the deck of a European cruise ship, stars reflecting off the sea - I can) or "Glide," where he sings of entering a portal and returning to his youth - ah, yes! - and croons about simpler, less complicated days. 

The beautiful strings accompanying Weller on "Gravity" take my breath away, while "Bowie" reminds me just how much we all miss David Bowie. In fact, Weller's vocal style reminds me of Bowie circa Blackstar. The line "How can the world lose his name? Everyone is bawling again ..." So very true. But he concludes with the lines: "We all have to go / Believe me / But letting go / Is thanking you." Weller understands that the things that are important in life aren't things, but the relationships we have, the experiences we share and the life we actually live. A truly remarkable record from the dapper Mr. Weller. True Meanings has that and more!

Superchunk – What A Time To Be Alive (Merge)

Again, Chapel Hill, N.C.’s indie-rock stalwarts, Superchunk, remind fans, new and old alike, that they still have a lot to say – and they say it without a tinge of bashfulness. Songs like "Reagan Youth," "I Got Cut" and "Break the Glass." 

As I wrote back in April for my review of What A Time To Be Alive: "It has been said that Trump will lead to more interesting, angry and powerful music, be it punk, rap or indie-rock. Superchunk did not sit on their hands in this dark age of Trumpism. Rather, they picked up their instruments, wrote some songs and musically kicked ass."

Breaking glass. Kicking ass. Superchunk may be middle-aged, but they rock harder and say more than most of the "rockin'" whippersnappers half their age. 

Christopher Cross - Take Me As I Am (Christopher Cross Records)

It's funny. Not long after I first listened to Christopher Cross's latest recording, Take Me As I Am (which features a painting of a flamingo on the cover - no surprise, there) I began seeing flamingos practically everywhere. It used to be owls. Now flamingos. Apparently Cross's love of that pink-feathered and long-legged bird has crossed over into our "reality." And to me, that's a good thing.

But what's even better is that Cross has released a record that stays true to that smooth, easy-listening vocal and instrumental style that so many of us fell in love with back when "Sailing" was floating at the top of the charts and folks were falling in love somewhere between the Moon and New York City. 

And in 2018, an album like Take Me As I Am is a musical balm in a topsy-turvy world. It's like a slice of paradise for the ears, where Cross gives us "Haila," "Down to the Wire" and his song "Roberta," about friend and singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. 

Steve Kilbey – Sydney Rococo (Golden Robot)

The singer/songwriter/bassist for Australia's The Church, Steve Kilbey, is a very prolific artist, writer and musician. His recent recordings with All India Radio's Martin Kennedy showcased a more overt cerebral-surrealism and otherworldly quality. A sort of Church-times-two. But that isn't fair, because I simply like everything Steve Kilbey releases, either solo, collaborating with others, or, obviously, with The Church, as evidenced by 2017's Man Woman Life Death Infinity, reviewed here.

Although The Church got its start, nearly 40 years ago, in Australia’s capital of Canberra, the band really has its strongest ties to that nation’s largest city – Sydney. And in a sense, Sydney Rococo is a love letter to the city he calls home.

So, Kilbey wasted no precious time writing more songs - and recording them - for Golden Robot Records.

As Kilbey put it in a statement about the album, it features “(s)ongs about things that happened and things that never could have happened. Songs for a banker or for a tramp. Songs about the seediness and the sea. Songs of Sydney morning and Sydney night.”

I think of former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch (circa Mystery to Me) or The Byrds' Roger McGuinn as Jak Housden's slinking psych-riffs pop up and down over "Distant Voices." Later, on "Lagoon," Housden shines with his chiming electric guitar, couched by 70's-styled background vocals and a string section, reminiscent of early-to-mid-1990's Church recordings. 

Church drummer Tim Powles (recording with the band since 1994's Sometime Anywhere) is mixed well on these songs, his opening hi-hat clear "When I Love Her She Sings." 

Poetic and intellectual all at once, Kilbey’s previously-released “Nineveh” (on 2009’s Garage Sutra) sounds even better here, nearly a decade later.

Middle Eastern sounds flavor “Achilles Heals” while “A Night is Coming” is a strummy, pop-rock number that is as musically straightforward as it gets. Is that a zither or dulcimer on “Sydney Morocco”? Whatever it is, it sounds like something the late Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones would have been all over.

Is there anything here as percussive, dramatic and stunning as Kilbey's 1990 song "Celebration of the Birthday of the Elephant God," from his excellent solo outing Remindlessness? Perhaps not, but the whole of Sydney Rococo could help along that "spiritual uprising" many of us suspect is coming sooner, rather than later. Stranger things have happened. I suspect Mr. Kilbey would agree. 

Buffalo Tom – Quiet and Peace

 

Yes, I admit to contributing to Buffalo Tom’s Pledge Music-financed new record Quiet and Peace, so maybe I’m biased in including it here 

, but really, it is deserving of this recognition of excellence here on their ninth studio album.

After all, Bill Janovitz (vocals/guitar); Chris Colbourn (bass/vocals) and Tom Maginnis (drums) have been playing as a Boston-based alt-rock trio off-and-on for years now.

With Quiet and Peace, Buffalo Tom once again  have their melancholy jangle-rock set for stun - it's that good. "All Be Gone" sounds like a single from Buffalo Tom's early-to-mid 90's heyday. Colbourn gets lead vocal duties on "Roman Cars," which brings to mind memories of My So-Called Life and autumnal days gone by. 

And I really admired their cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Only Living Boy in New York." Some really fine harmonies here between Janovitz and Colbourn. A sublime and dreamy quality that makes it a really amazing cover for the band. Well worth the wait since 2011's Skins album, reviewed here.

ODDS 'N SODS ... 

Other notables of 2018 include the utterly cool wooden box set (six discs in all) of music by Hoodoo Man blues singer Junior Wells. A true treasure featuring everything from "Key to the Highway," "Mystery Train" and Please Throw This Poor Dog a Bone." So very good.

And then there is the 7-inches for Planned Parenthood, which includes 7-inch vinyl recordings featuring CHVRCHES, Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, Bjork, Margaret Cho, Common, Foo Fighters, St. Vincent and many, many more. A real diverse offering and less overtly rock than other pro-choice collections of the past, like 90's CD's including Spirit of '73: Rock for Choice that had Indigo Girls, Letters to Cleo and Babes in Toyland. 

I also dug the Fat Possum Records Memphis Rent Party compilation featuring songs ranging from a 1955 Charlie Feathers track titled "Defrost Your Heart" to a 1979 recording of Alex Chilton and the Randy Band doing "Johnny Too Bad." One song by Junior Kimbrough - "All Night Long" - is listed as having been recorded in "Junior's house in the cotton field outside Holly Springs, MS March 26, 1989. Love the detail. I love these songs.

So, Kilbey wasted no precious time writing more songs - and recording them - for Golden Robot Records.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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