NPR Music's 40 Favorite Albums Of 2018 (So Far)
Let's face it: We live in an era dominated by playlists. Whether you listen to one of the chart-defining destinations on Spotify, let YouTube's algorithm be your guide, follow a friend's listening habits or create your own mixtapes, the idea of listening to an entire album in one sitting becomes increasingly quaint by the day. With thousands of great songs available at the tips of our fingers (not to mention that skip button), sitting through anything but an irresistible chorus can feel like a bridge too far. It's almost as if spending 30 minutes with a record requires an irrational attachment bordering on obsession.
So, for the moment, we're leaning into obsession. When we surveyed our panel of public radio writers about the best albums of the past six months, we asked them a single question: What is your one favorite album of 2018 so far? We weren't interested in the consensus constructed by second- and third-place votes; there will be plenty of pixels for that in December. Without further ado, let's talk about the passions.
Tearing at the Seams, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats' second album, came out in March on Stax Records. That's fitting: It's grounded in the soul music of Otis Redding, The Mar-Keys and Booker T. & The MG's, where the Hammond B-3 and a tight, expressive horn section are the most important instruments. Rateliff shows his influences proudly — soul, along with the soul-inspired rock of Leon Russell, Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers Band and The Band. But the record is not a period piece — the live, reverb-heavy production by Richard Swift keeps it in the present. It's not just groove: Rateliff's passionate voice and honest songs are the heart of the record. His gospel-style vocals are tucked into the band, but when the lyrics jump out, they offer up little pearls of wisdom. The standout is "Hey Mama," a tribute and a heartbreaker to a mom who had to tell her boy that life will never be easy: "You ain't gone far enough to say / At least I tried / You ain't worked hard enough to say / My legs have failed." Honest, open-hearted music. -- Lauren Onkey
It's not often that an artist undergoes a musical reinvention without some kind of personal strife or career epiphany. But in the case of songwriter and producer Caroline Rose and her incredible new album LONER, it wasn't change just for change's sake. It was simply a matter of being herself. Rose released her debut album, the somewhat more Americana-leaning I Will Not Be Afraid, a few years ago. Perhaps that title got into her subconscious — LONER finds her abandoning preconceived notions, resulting in a great deal of sonic expansion. On the new album, she adds synths and organ patterns to her rockabilly guitar style, bringing texture and intrigue, and creating a looser feel. By embracing her humorous nature and getting more aggressive and adventurous with her music, she was able to create something that felt more natural. While the album title suggests that Rose may feel like she's on an island of sorts, she's far from alone. With LONER, she has made herself more accessible and real to her fans, both old and new. -- Russ Borris, WFUV
While the nation continues its obsession over Chicago's body count, it's the living black bodies we tend to forget about. This is where West Side native Saba comes in. He titled his solemn sophomore studio LP Care For Me, and it's every bit the emotional appeal. Saddled with survivor's guilt over the murder of John Walt, his cousin and best friend who was also a member of their independent hip-hop collective Pivot Gang, Saba attempts to make sense of his loss by cycling through the stages of grief with an open heart and a storyteller's pen. "My best friend obituary really hang on my wall by the dresser / I'm tryna see it a life lesson," he raps on "Calligraphy." On the album's opus, "Prom/King," his recollection of senior prom serves as the catalyst for an eight-minute eulogy of cousin Walt that traverses the lifespan of their relationship, from teenage innocence to tragedy. Even when Saba pauses to eek out a "Smile," while tracing his roots from Chicago back down South, it's not without dreams of financing a great escape to keep his family, and sanity, intact. In the end, Saba's point of acceptance comes by embracing the afterlife. When he discovers, on "Heaven All Around Me," that he's gone ghost after becoming the city's latest shooting victim, he finally feels God's presence through the pain. A rap album about death has never sounded so angelic.— Rodney Carmichael
Clarity comes in contradictions on Lush, the full-length debut from Snail Mail's Lindsey Jordan. There's disillusionment ("It just feels like the same party every weekend") and despair ("I'm so tired of moving on"), but there's also veracity and vulnerability. Take the album's midpoint: "Stick" swirls with probing questions. "Did things work out for you?" Jordan asks. "Or are you still not sure what that means?" It's something the narrator knows the answer to, but doesn't seem willing to admit. What immediately follows, the plaintive "Let's Find an Out," offers an alternative: an uncertain escape.
In early adulthood, everything feels consequential. The nights when nothing happens feel weighty in morning's light; even what's rote can feel rich with meaning in retrospect. And for Jordan, there's significance in details. Lush is painted in color: waters bathed in blue, white dulling days and evening suns, green eyes and glowing moons. Such observations, backed by the dexterity of Jordan's playing, give Lush its luster. Even as the album ends where it begins on "Anytime," there's no real resolution. Instead, Lush offers openness, emboldened by intimacy and virtuosity. -- Lyndsey McKenna
Twenty-year-old Sophie Allison, from Nashville, cuts to the core on Soccer Mommy's Clean,as if she's already in hurry. Her flat delivery and lack of lyrical pretense lay bare moments of obsession and rejection in a frank, almost detached fashion. Her album takes its title from Taylor Swift's freedom ballad, but there's also a sense of the world-burning defiance borrowed from Liz Phair's '90s debut, Exile In Guyville. "I don't want to be your f****** dog," she snarls in response to decades of obliviousness. Clean betrays simmering anger, hurt and an ever-present humor and self-deprecation (not surprising for someone with a moniker this silly). The emotions are felt, but Allison revels in none of them. As if to say there's a lot of life yet to live, she maintains a sense of absurdity about it all. "She'll steal your joy like a criminal," Allison sings in admiration. "I wanna be that cool." -- Jeff McCord, KUTX
: a complex and interwoven system of musical elements bearing essential and fundamental attributes including but not limited to mirth, melody, inflatable whales and fun.
Related words: refreshing, warped, sparkling, super, amusing, playful, jolly, silly, funny, jokey, catchy, original, surprising, bubbly, giddy, thoughtful, singable, danceable, adorable, enchanting, charming, winning, endearing, cuddly, engaging, baffling, addicting, delightful, sincere, kooky, mischievous, melodious, hyperactive, ecstatic, jubilant, visual, liquid, future, favorite. -- Bob Boilen
Every Tracey Thorn album is a treasure. Maybe that's not news anymore. Thorn is several cycles into a career full of essential contributions to pop: a distinctive voice of emotionally reverberant dance songs, a maker of immaculately detailed indie-pop, an author and performer of multiple certified classics. Perhaps that's why Thorn — despite releasing Record, only her latest perfect collection of understated songs written from her one-of-a-kind perspective — has gotten more press this year for her prose than the music itself. Her regular column in the New Statesman went viral when, after reading reviews of Record, she wrote a piece about "35 years of being described by men."
Personal history, it so happens, is one of the things that distinguishes Record, across which Thorn trains her eye on the past again and again. She tells stories of growing up and finding freedom in learning to play guitar; she wonders how her life would have turned out if she hadn't stuck with Ben Watt, her husband and former bandmate in Everything But the Girl; she recounts a family history going back generations across wars and migrations to and from London. But Thorn isn't reliving the past – she and producer Ewan Pearson lattice the album in sneakily modern sounds that converse with her work from the '80s and '90s. And the lyrics pivot to current events on a dime: In "Smoke," that chronicle of her lineage, she sings of the allure the city held to her as a suburban youth, and then spits out, "London, you're in my blood / But I feel you going wrong." Brexit and the women's march, her demand for reproductive rights and her desire for children – this is an album that only could have been made for 2018, and only by a woman who'd spent the decades leading up to it keeping her pen and her ear equally sharp. -- Jacob Ganz
How strong is Henry Threadgill's style? It rings unmistakably throughout Dirt... And More Dirt — even though the avant-garde eminence makes only a few choice appearances as a soloist, on alto saxophone or flute. The album, containing two new suites for the hilariously named ensemble 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, pulsates with Threadgillian energies. Loosely inspired by The New York Earth Room,a landmark Walter De Maria installation, each suite ("Dirt," in six movements; "And More Dirt," in four) attests to the clarity of Threadgill's vision, and to his equally striking success as a ringleader. (The members of his new-music all-star crew commit to the task as if their lives depended on it.) The jump-cut intervals, the contrapuntal ricochet, the air of wild-eyed revelry turned deadly serious — every detail in this music feels like a refinement of proprietary intel. When the man in charge makes his valedictory remarks on alto in the album's final moments, it registers as a cathartic shock, because you no longer expect such gargantuan ambition to finally be corralled and compressed back to human scale. — Nate Chinen, WBGO
When Kamasi Washington performed live on KCRW last week, he dedicated his last set to the "space cadets and the daydreamers" before he dove into "The Space Travelers Lullaby." As a kid who grew up in a household that loved jazz, hearing his words reaffirmed its otherworldly-yet-visceral appeal, and why its resurgence in the last few years feels so inclusive. (Who among is not a space cadet or a daydreamer?) Kamasi Washington makes his glorious, devotional West Coast jazz about all of us.
His sophomore album, Heaven and Earth, explores differences and parallels between two worlds — the celestial and the terrestrial. His every instinct is to draw the two together, not just to reconcile, but to fully marry them. He asks us to travel through two different modes — outward experience and inward imagination. And when we venture out, having seen both sides, we can choose to create the world we want.
Musically, Heaven and Earth feels completely new and yet deeply familiar. Maybe it's partly because the players, part of his collective The West Coast Get Down and his band, The Next Step, have played together and been family for decades. Or maybe it's because the sounds of Washington's saxophone and the intention behind his dense, powerful music are meant to include us, activate our imaginations, and give us the permission to keep daydreaming. -- Anne Litt, KCRW
If you are searching for new music to vibe with, here's a pick that takes a cool 15 minutes. With 15 one-minute songs, Tierra Whack's Whack World stands alone as Instagrammable vignettes but also connects with thoughtful intention as a whimsical, visual pseudo concept album. The colorful adventure is a stone-cold trip: The film includes a blinged-out nightclub scene in a tiny RV, a pet cemetery complete with animal puppets singing backup vocals, and Whack stuck in a miniature Dr. Seuss house, her face peeking out of a dormer window with arms and legs extending outward.
The listening experience doesn't disappoint, either. Absent the vibrant visuals, Whack pulls you into her musical journey with clean arrangements of divergent styles of R&B, trap, pop, hip-hop and even country grooves. What kind of place is Whack World? Her response: "It's down, then up, down, then up. It's scary, it feels good, it doesn't. It's crazy, it's calm. It's everything. That's exactly me." No matter what you call it, one thing is clear. Tierra Whack is one of the most exciting new creatives making music today. -- Suraya Mohamed
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