Brittany Howard “Jaime” (ATO). This solo album from the Alabama Shakes singer/songwriter front woman pushes boundaries beyond her past work in a full band context. Calling for a self-imposed band hiatus in 2018, she headed out into a period of self-discovery. The record is named after her older sister who passed away at the young age of thirteen. Howard chose to retreat to a house on Topanga Canyon to work on new material, and “Jaime” is a document of that period of time.
Branching out past the phenomenal “Sound & Vision” LP, there are hints of Prince, D’Angelo, and a few Nina Simone influences on this one. LA producer Shawn Everett, who engineered The Shakes’ 2015 “Sound & Vision” LP, produced this one. The songs are unified by common themes of love, compassion, and humanity with an overlying theme of ridding this world of hate and bigotry. The brilliant “Georgia” is a jam that takes our current right-wing apocalypse head-on. The record is much more experimental than any of her past projects and full of sonic textures throughout. Key tracks are “Stay High,” “Georgia,” and “He Loves Me.”
Michael Kiwanuka “Kiwanuka” (Polydor). Already a personal choice for record of the year, this is Michael Kiwanuka’s follow up to the excellent “Love & Hate” which was released in 2016. He is often compared to Bill Withers and Terry Callier for his signature folk/soul sound. On this new release he takes his sound to new territories. Produced by highly sought-after producer Danger Mouse with the help of London hip-hop producer Inflo, the sound is both timeless and contemporary and deserves to be listened to in one extended sitting. Listeners paying sufficiently close attention will detect a darker undertow to his lyrics on this new release. There is an underlying thematic tie to racism in the world on this release but, through all of the subject matters covered throughout the record, it is never downbeat. On the excellent track “I’ve Been Dazed,” the addition of a gospel choir takes the song to glorious heights. On the excellent opener “You Ain’t the Problem” Mr. Kiwanuka delivers a single full of psyche-funk-fuzz with a sharp vocal hook that’s wise, reassuring, and upbeat while delivering a strong opinion on current attitudes towards immigration. There are personal moments too, as with the track “Piano Joint,” an exquisite track where he’s eulogizing a love that can deliver him from a life of “sadness and fury.” This record is leaping in new directions, yielding an album that’s thoughtful, emotional, expertly crafted, and often sublime. Key tracks are “Piano Joint,” “I’ve Been Dazed,” and “Hero.”
Joe Henry “The Gospel According to Water” (Ear Music). Joe Henry has always had stories to tell. Sometimes these stories are told through metaphors, such as on “Our Song” from his excellent 2007 album “Civilians,” where he sings of seeing Willie Mays at a Scottsdale Home Depot store looking at garage door springs. Henry has always been one of my personal favorite recording artists/producers and one that I turn to for inspirational listening pleasure. The year 2018 was a bit different for Henry. The metaphors were different this time. He was diagnosed by his doctors, in the latter part of that year, with stage 4 prostate cancer. Thankfully, he is now fully in remission. On this, his 15th release as a solo artist, the collection of songs was recorded over a two-day period initially as demos. The songs document a period not about illness but rather, as Henry says, “in love with life; lustily aglow.” There is an underlying theme of both love and spirituality on this collection of songs. This is a very intimate album with Henry sometimes alone on acoustic and electric guitars and at times joined by Patrick Warren on keyboards and piano, John Smith on acoustic guitar as well as Henry’s son, Levon, on alto sax and clarinet. The Birds of Chicago (JT Nero and Allison Russell) contribute harmonies of “In Time for Tomorrow” and “The Fact of Love”. One of my personal favorites from the album, “Orson Welles,” contains one of the most profound refrains of any of his songs to date: “Come the turn of the story, come the moving floor-/If you supply the terms of my surrender/then I’ll provide the war.” This is an album that embraces and celebrates our delicate lives. One that will grow on you after repeated listenings. It is simply a beautiful body of work. Key tracks are “Orson Welles,” “Bloom,” and “In Time for Tomorrow.”
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Ghosteen” (Ghosteen Ltd). This double album has been described by Nick himself as divided between the first eight songs (Part One) “The Children,” and the remaining three songs (Part Two) “The Parents.” After losing his 15-year-old son Arthur in a tragic accident, this body of work is the cathartic release of emotions that emote the sad loss of a loved one. Working again with his classic band and the songwriting partnership of fellow Bad Seed, Warren Ellis, the entire record is a sad and yet beautiful evolutionary documentation of the last few years of Cave’s personal life. The twelve-minute title track is by far the most stunning. His voice is weary and adds to the deep emotions that are delivered throughout, with a hint of Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker influences. On the closing track, he digs deep emotionally and sings of “wanting peace to come.” I hope he finds that through this work. This is worthy of a listen in its entirety to grasp the depth of the work. Key tracks are “Ghosteen,” “Bright Horses,” “Galleon Ship” and “Hollywood.”
Purple Mountains “Purple Mountains” (Drag City Records). This one we didn’t review this past year, but we should have.
The National “I Am Easy to Find” (4AD Records). This, The National’s eighth release and first new release since 2017’s “Sleep Well Beast,” takes a slight departure from previous collections by featuring female harmonies by various guest artists which take the band and these new songs to a beautiful place. The National have stayed on the top of the alternative and rock charts by continually evolving as a band and trying something different each time out. Working with the writer/director Mike Mills on this one, the band chose to bring on a non music producer to see where all of these new songs could go. Accompanied by a short film which can be streamed on the artists’ website, guest vocalists such as Leslie Feist and Phoebe Bridgers take the band to beautiful places with perfectly complementary vocals. This is a truly beautiful collection of songs. Standout tracks: “Quiet Light,” “Hey Rosey,” and “Rylan.”
Angel Olson “All Mirrors” (Jagjaguwar). Angel Olson’s voice can sweep from a shimmering whisper to a piercing wail. Olson returns with her fourth full length with this new release. Up until the release of this album, Olson was known more for leaning towards folk-rock. The orchestral strings and noir subject matter make this the singer-songwriter’s best and boldest record yet. As Olson puts it, her latest effort is “about owning up to your darkest side, finding the capacity for new love and trusting change even when you feel like a stranger.” The breathtaking songs are fleshed out by a 12-piece string section, creating a beautiful, grand, gestural sound. These songs were all originally written in isolation in the remote location of Anacortes, Washington to allude to the accrued weight of her identity at the time. In these songs, love and, consequently, her identity, became an illusion through the isolation. Eight of the eleven tracks feature the 12-piece string section. The dramatic musical arcs of the arrangements add to the granular textures of Olson’s songwriting. “All Mirrors” is a successful example of how being bold and staying true to yourself pays off. Key tracks are “Lark,” “All Mirrors,” and “Summer.”