In recent years, I’ve had a way of coming up with top album choices that haven’t been on the radar of most publications. This year, I can’t for the life of me understand how my album of the year, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s “No Mercy in This Land,” hasn’t shown up on any best albums lists I’ve seen so far (It just, however, got nominated for a Grammy.) Perhaps I hear things no one else notices. Maybe I’m clueless when it comes to recognizing great music. Or maybe a lot of critics have decided blues-rooted music isn’t relevant these days. All I can say is “No Mercy In This Land” immediately moved to the top of my list when it was released last spring, and I didn’t hear another 2018 album that knocked it off its perch.
So, sorry to spoil the top album surprise, but at least I didn’t give away the other albums on my top albums list for 2018, a year when the wealth of excellent albums made narrowing the field to a top 10 difficult.
No. 1: Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite, “No Mercy in This Land” — The album starts with a bang, reeling off five sterling rockers that bridge the worlds of blues, gospel, soul and rock, beginning with the stinging “When I Go” and culminating with “Found the One,” a rousing gumbo of funk, soul and rock that feels like it could have been a left field hit single. From there, Harper and Musselwhite spread their wings, delivering a slow-burning piano-based ballad, “When Love is Not Enough,” that’s as beautiful as it is sad. On “Trust You to Dig My Grave” and the title song, they go acoustic and evoke any number of great pre-World War II bluesmen. Then after one more rousing rocker, “Moving On,” the album closes with another achingly pretty downbeat ballad, “Nothing At All.” Together, “No Mercy in This Land” provides a master class in blues and related styles.
No. 2: Lucy Dacus, “Historian” — Dacus makes quite an introduction with the opening track, “Night Shift,” which takes a biting look at a breakup and musically builds from a low-key beginning to a thrilling crescendo. It’s the best moment on “Historian,” but far from the only song or lyric that commands attention. On “Addictions” and “Nonbelievers,” Dacus shows a talent for concise and hooky pop-rock, but some of her best songs unfold more slowly, sometimes (as on “Shell” and “Me and Mine”) with instrumental passages that provide standout moments in the tunes. Only two albums into her career, Dacus has the talent to make some history as she continues her musical story.
No. 3: Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour” — Critics have been fawning over “Golden Hour” since it was released. There’s good reason. It is a luminous album, on which Musgraves ponders what’s right in the world, lyrically dropping hints along the way about her life, her hopes and who she is as a person. The songs are pretty and finely crafted, ranging from the bluegrass-flecked “Love is a Wild Thing” to poppier fare, such as “Slow Burn” and the standout tune “Happy & Sad.” I do miss the more rambunctious country side Musgraves occasionally showed on her two earlier albums, but it’s hard to fault an album as strong and thoughtful as “Golden Hour.”
No. 4: Superchunk, “What a Time to Be Alive” — For almost 30 years, this band from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has been responsible for some of the best melodic, high-energy rock on the scene. “What a Time to Be Alive” doesn’t vary much from the Superchunk template, but with the band’s songwriting remaining at a peak, change is the last thing this band needs.
No. 5: Fantastic Negrito, “Please Don’t Be Dead” — Blurring the lines between soul, rock, blues and rap, Negrito delivers a diverse and dynamic collection of sharply written songs that’s anything but dead. The eclecticism of “Please Don’t Be Dead” may be challenging at first, but the more you listen, the more this Grammy-nominated album impresses.
No. 6: Mitski, “Be the Cowboy” — Mitski isn’t the easiest artist to pin down stylistically. There’s some Kate Bush, Cat Power, a little Bowie, Florence + the Machine, and Morrissey, to name a few touchstones, in her songs. Whatever the musical setting, the songs, with only a couple of exceptions, are very good as she rolls through the spacey rock of “Remember My Name,” the hybrid of bouncy piano pop and old-school soul of “Me and My Husband” and the grand, swirling orchestral pop of “Geyser,” applying some barbed lyrical observations and insights (often on relationships) along the way. Dig in and you’ll find more to like.
No. 7: Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer” — After effectively adapting android personas on earlier albums, Monae emerges portraying herself on “Dirty Computer.” Here, Monae is both flashy (no surprise there), brazenly confident (her declarations on the joys and the power of her sexuality in “Screwed,” “I Got The Juice” and “Django Jane” don’t pull punches) and uncommonly vulnerable (just listen to the artifice-shedding confessions of “Don’t Judge Me” or the fragility of “So Afraid”). Her sound is still a futuristic mix of hip-hop, rock, soul and electronica, but there’s a good bit of classicism, too, as “Dirty Computer” reaffirms that Monae is one of the most intriguing and compelling artists on the scene.
No. 8: Brian Fallon, “Sleepwalkers” — The frontman from Gaslight Anthem returns with his second solo album, pulling back a bit on the intensity of that band, but not really changing his stripes. “Forget Me Not” and “Little Nightmares” could work in Gaslight Anthem, although they employ a slightly lighter touch, while on “Neptune” and the song “Sleepwakers,” Fallon shows he can successfully venture into poppier territory. Time will tell if we see more albums from the Gaslight Anthem (officially the band is on hiatus), but “Sleepwalkers” assures us that Fallon is still creating music at a high level.
No. 9: Father John Misty, “God’s Favorite Customer” — Josh Tillman, as his alter ego Father John Misty, has a habit of making albums that seem weightier and more profound than they actually are. On “God’s Favorite Customer,” it’s tempting to view Tillman as being more open and vulnerable than ever, but his songs mostly remain collages of clever wordplay, funny asides, and possibly a line or two that reveals some insight into Tillman’s state of mind or his character. Of course, trying to interpret his songs is part of the fun with “God’s Favorite Customer,” and if lyrical analysis isn’t your thing, the songs, which evoke the likes of the Beatles, Harry Nilsson and Bob Dylan, are strong enough musically to make this album succeed impressively on that level alone.
No. 10: Screaming Females, “All at Once” — Seven albums into its career, Screaming Females continues to get better at creating multifaceted, hard-edged and taut guitar rock. On “All at Once,” the band consistently unfurls winning songs that take unexpected twists and turns in tempos, melody and riffs. Add in smart lyrics and the growing vocal prowess of Marissa Paternoster and you have a group that is now firmly established as one of today’s best bands of their ilk.
Honorable mentions: Amanda Shires, “To the Sunset”; Kali Uchis, “Isolation”; Ashley Monroe, “Sparrow”; Rosanne Cash, “She Remembers Everything”; Parquet Courts, “Wide Awake”; Saba, “Care for Me”; Paul Collins, “Out of My Head”; Cardi B, “Invasion of Privacy”; Ron Gallo, “Stardust Birthday Party”; and Pusha T, “Daytona.”