On John Calipari

So, I had a lot of fun watching Kentucky’s men’s basketball team this year, and I think 30 wins is an impressive feat any year but especially in what was perhaps the most competitive season of SEC men’s basketball during Cal’s tenure in Lexington. I also freely admit that if you equate fun basketball with winning basketball–and I mostly do–anyone who could reasonably replace Calipari would only produce a less enjoyable basketball viewing experience.

Having said all of that, I have to point out the following:

  • After ten seasons in Lexington, Tubby had one national championship and averaged 26.3 wins/season and 2.3 NCAA tourney wins/season. For those efforts, Tubby was run out of Lexington.
  • After ten seasons in Lexington, Cal has one national championship and averages 30.5 wins/season and 3.1 NCAA tourney wins/season. For those efforts, Cal was awarded a lifetime contract with the University of Kentucky.

So, a little more than 4 extra wins/season and a little fewer than 1 extra NCAA tournament win/season is the difference between packing your bags for the frozen tundra of Minneapolis and a lifetime contract. How do we explain this? Racism? Institutional insanity? How many AdCon faculty at UK can’t afford basic dental care while Cal is kept on a permanent retainer until his corpse is emulsified and served as the flavor of the month at Orange Leaf? Do we, in the most obnoxious, grating voice possible, say, “well, actually, that’s an apples to Orange Leaf comparison; those are two different eras that come with different expectations?” Can I point out that Tubby only had 4 fewer wins/season and 1 fewer NCAA tournament win/season with far, far, far less talent than Cal? Can we draw any conclusions about Tubby and Cal as in-game coaches? If we do call Cal’s in-game coaching into question, could he improve? Could he have more than one baseline inbounds play? Could he learn to make in-game adjustments? Given his massive salary and lifetime contract, should he improve? Or should he just cash those checks and continue to get out-coached by the likes of Bruce Pearl and Bruce Weber and Roy Williams and Tom Crean and Bo Ryan and Kevin Ollie and Andrew Toole?

Just some questions 🤔

Merry Listmas: My Favorite Records of This Foul Year of Our Lord, 2018

I’ve often heard people say that once you have a kid, you can’t keep up with new music anymore. Music is one of my primary sources of joy, so that sounded like a bummer, but I had a kid anyway. Although I’m sure I will indeed have to cut back on the amount of music I listen to once my son is mobile, I actually found the opposite to be true this year: I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to more new music in a given year. One thing they don’t really tell you about having a kid is those first few months involve a lot of time just sort of sitting there and remaining adjacent to your sleeping child. It’s a bizarre liminal space, at once hyper-real and nearly unreal, where you simultaneously experience a deep, nagging, and unending exhaustion, the purest joy I imagine you can feel, and a profound ennui. It’s not for everyone, but I loved it!

Here you will find a brief summary of my favorite records of this foul year of our Lord, 2018. Foul because, well, take a look around, my friend. But hope springs eternal as they say. It’s hard not to feel hope when I look at my son. He’s good. And there’s still much to celebrate from within this cesspool of what Adam Curtis calls “hypernormalisation.” I wrote about 30 records in all. I know, I know, it’s too much, but like I said: I listened to a lot of new music this year, and what’s more, I enjoyed a lot of new music this year. I’ve divided these records into four tiers: tier 1 represents my absolute favorite records of the year; tier 4 represents my 24th-30th favorite records of the year. You get it. Within tiers, albums are listed alphabetically by artist. Anyway, Merry Listmas!

Tier 4

David Crosby: Here if You Listen

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At 77-years-old, the Croz is low-key on a late-career tear and has, unfathomably, passed Neil in terms of quality of work over these past five years. (I love Neil, but I’m starting to worry he’s cashed). These last five years have seen Crosby take his explorations of folk-jazz fusion to new and prettier heights. This isn’t my favorite of his releases since he started this run–that would be last year’s Sky Trails–but there are some really lovely moments on this one.

Key tracks: “Vagrants of Venice,” “1974,” “Buddha on a Hill”

Cover notes: If the Croz is going to release consistently strong material, he should hire a better graphic designer. You’d think you were about to listen to some New Age drivel based on the cover.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: Live from the Ryman

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When my wife was giving birth earlier this year, she asked to hear Jason Isbell’s music. “Last of My Kind” played as my son entered the world. I’ve loved Isbell for years, but his music will now always hold a very special place in my heart. This terrific live record features songs from his last three records and showcases the road-tested precision of his backing band the 400 Unit and the Gram-and-Emmylou close harmonies of Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires.

Key tracks: “Flagship,” “Last of My Kind,” “Cover Me Up”

Cover notes: A simple and elegant nod to the iconic venue at which this album was recorded.

The Jayhawks: Back Roads and Abandoned Motels

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The Jayhawks have built a career around traversing the road between Exile-era Stones and Big Star, and their greatest magic trick was always making that relatively short journey look like a flat, Midwestern highway stretching miles and miles. Gary Louris & co. most wholly synthesized those two flavors on 2003’s Rainy Day Music, but there are moments on this new record where we again see them achieve that perfect synthesis of Jagger/Richards and Alex Chilton. This is an album of songs Louris wrote with other artists for those other artists’ records, so it’s not necessarily the freshest material. 3 or the 11 tracks are decade-plus-old Dixie Chicks co-writes, which isn’t a knock; the Chicks flat out slap and should forever stand in the annals of history as folk heroes for their opposition to then-President George W. Bush and aggro-country moron Toby Keith. Indeed, the Dixie Chicks cowrites represent the strongest material on this record.

Key tracks: “Everybody Knows,” “Gonna Be a Darkness,” “Backwards Women”

Cover notes: This cover is about a hundred times better and cooler than the album itself:  the contrasts between day and night and the modernity of the automobile and an earlier time evoked by the grain silos seen in the distance. Interestingly, it’s the auto shop that appears out of time with a vintage car parked in front illuminated by neons emitting blue-green hues. The silos, on the other hand, shine in the first light of morning (or is that the last light of day?).

Johnny Jewel: Themes for Television

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This collection of synthesizer motifs was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It’s the soundtrack for a movie playing in your mind; put it on late at night if you want to have the hell–or perhaps your manufactured doppelgänger–spooked out of you.

Key tracks: “Windswept (Minimal),” “Red Curtains,” “Infinity Room”

Cover notes: Is that Laura Palmer? Audrey Horne? Speaking of Audrey Horne, what is going on with her exactly?

Steven Page: Discipline: Heal Thyself: Part II

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If we’re going to rehabilitate every stupid ’90s band, it’s really long past time for us to rehabilitate Barenaked Ladies. Everything about BNL’s ’90s run from boho bongo-bashers to power pop purveyors should translate to 2018. Even their seemingly goofy early-’90s sartorial choices wouldn’t look totally out of place alongside those of a contemporary band such as Fun.  Ah, but then there are all those novelty songs that BNL made all their money on: “One Week,” “Pinch Me,” and the theme to the nerd show. Yeesh. Robbed of all critical goodwill by their financial windfall. Say it ain’t so. Well, if you want the hooks and the hipness without all the naked gimmickry and baggage of problematic appropriations of hip hop culture, Steven Page, erstwhile-barenaked-lady and the only ace-in-the-hole songwriter the band ever had, has been paving his own path for a decade now, and this is his best, tightest, and most stylistically diverse collection of songs since he bid the other ladies adieu.

Key tracks: “Gravity,” “White Noise,” “Looking for the Light”

Cover notes: Here we have one of two album covers to make my favorite records of the year list that pays homage to Wes Anderson.

St. Vincent: MassEducation

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St. Vincent has been our most consistent and best artist over the last ten years, but her songs have always stood behind an edifice of production and high concept. Here the song’s from my favorite record of 2017, MASSEDUCTION, are stripped bare and presented as piano and voice numbers. The results aren’t necessarily arresting; anyone who has been paying attention knew there was truly fantastic songwriting behind those layers of ironic detachment, artiness, and synth fuzz. But the ballads, always the secret weapon of MASSEDUCTION, really shine given this treatment. And that hushed, spoken-word outro on “Los Ageless” will send shivers down your spine.

Key tracks: “Savior,” “Los Ageless,” “Happy Birthday, Johnny”

Cover notes: The blurry flesh tones of this image–a sort of pale humanity–stands in stark contrast to the neon, plastic image gracing the cover of last year’s MASSEDUCTION.

Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth

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When we returned from the hospital following the birth of my son, I discovered seven Pat Metheny LPs and a handful of Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis records in my collection that I don’t remember ever purchasing. Was it magic? Was it a siren saxophone sounding in the distance, singing the song of the dads? Look, I’m not saying I’ve gone full jazz dad, but I’ve got opinions on subgenres: modal, avant-garde, free, hard bop, post-bop, and fusion are my jams. Kamasi, with his afrofuturist aesthetics and grooves, is wonderful. As I’ve said before, he’s the only person trying to keep jazz in the mainstream consciousness. Though this two-and-a-half-hour triple record flies in the face of my loosely held belief that albums should not exceed 40-minutes in length, it’s hard to argue with it once Thundercat absolutely melts your face with a bass solo on “The Invincible Youth.”

Key tracks: “The Invincible Youth,” “Street Fighter Mas,” “Will You Sing”

Cover notes: Washington stands on the water, but because the water reflects the colors of the sky and the image of Washington himself, the photo creates the illusion of Washington ascending, and transcending, earth and, one must imagine, all its attendant sorrows and pains.

Tier 3

The Nels Cline 4: Currents, Constellations

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The jazz dad strikes again. Cline is perhaps best known for playing lead guitar for dad rock stalwarts Wilco for the past decade and a half, but he cut his teeth as a free jazz guitarist. His new group, The Nels Cline 4, features another ace guitarist Julian Lage, and the alternatingly rambunctious and serene Cline-Lage guitar interplay is the star of the show on this debut.

Key tracks: “Imperfect 10,” “Temporarily,” “River Mouth, Pt. 1 & 2”

Cover notes: The clean lines of the figures sketched onto graph paper evoke the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and his belief in democratically transforming space in a way that highlights both form and function while remaining in harmony with natural surroundings.

First Aid Kit: Ruins

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Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg cowrote these ten razor-sharp songs, marrying vintage-1970 melodies with pure 21st Century pathos, and assembled a murderer’s row of Tucker Martine, Peter Buck, and Glenn Kotche to help perform, record, and produce them for public consumption. The results are often stunning, and not to detract from the accomplishments of the Söderberg sisters, but more acts operating in the Americana oeuvre should hire Peter Buck. He’s a verifiable national treasure!

Key tracks: “Rebel Heart,” “Postcard,” “Distant Star”

Cover notes: Were it not for the sisters’ wrist tattoos, this album cover–between its behemoth font and stark black and white photo–wouldn’t look out of place on a record shelf in 1970.

North Americans & Friends: Going Steady

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North Americans is the instrumental guitar project of Patrick McDermott. (Not the Patrick McDermott who dated Olivia Newton-John and is believed to have faked his own death in the middle-’00s–shoutout to Uncovered the Podcast). There are shades of John Fahey’s American Primitive Guitar in the circular movements of these compositions, but McDermott’s playing is never quite as deliberate or evocative as Fahey’s. Still, with synthesizers gently droning behind the finger-picked guitar, there is a calming, trance-like quality to these songs.

Key tracks: “Bleeding Heart Tetra,” “Going Steady,” “Northern Pike (Be Kind To Me)”

Cover notes: Man, just drink it ALL IN. Groove on this blissed out animal band jamming in outer space while you’re listening to these gentle, hypnotic guitar compositions, and tell me you have anything to worry about. You don’t. You don’t, man. Just be like the bear, man. He doesn’t have a worry. Or, no, be that fish blowing that funky saxophone. He REALLY doesn’t have a worry. Earth is miles away, and so are all your worries. And check out that cat sleeping on the moon. That cat is wild.

Nothing: Dance on the Blacktop

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Philadelphia shoegazers Nothing are back with more gorgeous melodies lodged within walls of distorted guitars. But this time, some of the distorted guitars are acoustic guitars. Nothing have always roamed a vaguely ’90s alt-rock landscape, but it’s never quite possible to pin down their antecedents. Dinosaur Jr.? Maybe a little, and those flavors are certainly more pronounced on this release with frequent Dino Jr. collaborator John Agnello behind the boards. Sonic Youth? Not quite. Weezer? Closer. Teenage Fanclub? Perhaps a touch. What I’m always left with is the realization that Nothing are their own thing, and it’s a very good thing at that.

Key tracks: “Blue Line Baby,” “You Wind Me Up,” “Us/We/Are”

Cover notes: It’s perhaps still a bit uncanny for many longtime crate-diggers to see digital photographs on album covers, but with this particularly striking image, Nothing takes the uncanniness to new heights.

Pinegrove: Skylight

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Pinegrove planned to release Skylight in 2017, but after what’s amounted to a bizarre and tough year for the band, the album’s release was pushed back to 2018. Some might ask if we should even give Pinegrove any of our time or attention. To learn about Pinegrove’s year in purgatory, check out this Jenn Pelly piece. In my mind, it’s a fascinating read–sad, yes, but also demonstrative of these bizarre times in which we live. Setting aside the baggage–Roland Barthes, come on in–the album is a fantastic addition to the Pinegrove discography. Not as strong as 2016’s Cardinal, but still another shot of pure pathos: Ryan Adams filtered through all the worst, most solipsistic tendencies of early-’00s emo and punk and somehow coming out the other side fully formed and functional.

Key tracks: “Rings,” “Darkness,” “Light On”

Cover notes: If you read the Pelly piece, I think you’ll agree with me on this front: Pinegrove needed to can the iconography routine yesterday. If you sing super confessional, heart-on-sleeve songs and base your entire aesthetic around simple images such as squares and ampersands–images that people can easily tattoo onto their flesh–I’m sorry, but you’re just setting yourself up for a fall.

John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness

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The Tree of Forgiveness is John Prine’s first album of original material in 13 years and features co-writes with The Black Keys’s Dan Auerbach and the imprisoned Phil Spector. The Spector co-write was actually begun in the ’70s and finally finished by Prine some 40 years later for this album. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires back Prine on a few of the album’s cuts (one of three albums on my list that they play or sing on), and the album is produced by Savannah, Georgia native Dave Cobb (one of four albums on my list with Cobb behind the boards). But despite all the assists from famous friends, this album is pure Prine: his dog-eared turns of phrase, his Midwestern charm (you can hear him smiling as his he sings many of these songs), and his voice that has aged into something approximating a hybrid between your favorite uncle and a favorite old car that you got rid of two or three decades ago.

Key tracks: “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” “Boundless Love,” “When I Get to Heaven”

Cover notes: There he is. Look upon his works, ye Mighty, and despair. The singing mailman. Two-time cancer survivor. Still singing to and for the people. Dylan? Ah, he’s pretty good, but he’s a misanthrope. He has a deep antipathy for his fellow man. Prine? Prine’s songs show a deeply felt empathy for his fellow travelers. Sometimes it’s subtext, but often it’s just the text itself. God, I love him. He’s a true treasure. Hold him close while we have him.

Robyn: Honey

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First of all, this would be in Tier 1 if the last three songs on this album were even just mediocre instead of sounding like the house music tracks on Cruis’n World. Yes, that’s a reference to a twenty-year-old Nintendo 64 game, and yes, the last few tracks on this album really are perfect soundalikes for the tracks meant to evoke racing on the streets of Europe twenty years ago. But the first six songs on this album are as great as the last three songs are unlistenable. It’s really baffling.

Robyn has completely cornered the market on sad dance floor bangers. Or is it that she’s cornered the market on dance floor bangers explicitly meant to be listened to on headphones, alone in your bedroom while feeling vaguely sad? One thing is for sure: this album should be listened to on headphones. Aurally, there is so much going on here. “Send to Robin Immediately” shape-shifts so frequently, she might as well have titled it “Constable Odo.” That’s another ’90s reference. Never mind. But seriously, check out the first six songs on Honey. They slap, folks.

Key tracks: “Missing U,” “Human Being,” “Send to Robin Immediately”

Cover notes: The typography of the album’s title is blurry, but if you squint, it becomes clear. Of course, if you squint, the gender of the figure on the cover (and yes, that is Robyn) becomes unclear. Blurring lines–gender or genre–has been Robyn’s modus operandi for her entire career.

Tennis System: Pain

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I know very little about Tennis System other than what I’ve read on their social media accounts, but they’re signed to Savannah-based Graveface Records, and I try to pick up at least one Graveface release every year. I can’t recommend the Graveface releases enough. Label head Ryan Graveface–and I’m pretty sure he really does the bulk of the label work himself–demonstrates such an amazing attention-to-detail. Their releases are all really gorgeous in terms of the physical products, but Graveface also has an ear for talent. I’ve never once been disappointed by a Graveface release (special shoutout to the stunning 2017 Blind Mr. Jones retrospective), and I’ve gone into every single one totally blind. Like the other Graveface releases I’ve picked up through the years, Pain was a welcome surprise. The music is shoegaze with a compactness to it. Romantic, dreamy pocket songs about, well, pain.

Key tracks: “Coming Down,” “Lackluster,” “Lie”

Cover notes: You really need to track down the physical release of this record. It features black type on a black background. Graveface himself pointed this feature out to me; he was clearly proud of it and rightfully so. It looks super cool.

Colter Wall: Songs of the Plains

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Colter Wall is a Canadian with a rich Gordon Lightfootesque baritone who has fallen in with the Nashville set of Dave Cobb, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell. Songs of the Plains is a concept album that attempts to position Canada within the country music mythos. An earth-worn set of songs, this album serves as an important reminder that country music is not strictly the provenance of Nashville and Americana is not strictly the provenance of the States. If we can ignore those social constructs for our brothers and sisters to the north, perhaps we can do the same for our brothers and sisters to the south. Just a thought.

Key tracks: “Plain to See Plainsman,” “Saskatchewan in 1881,” “Manitoba Man”

Cover notes: Another album cover that goes out of its way to look like it belongs to another time. I certainly wouldn’t question it if I was told this cover dates to the 1970s.

Ryley Walker: Deafman Glance

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Ryley Walker came onto my radar with 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Sung. His songs are steeped in atmosphere, transpiring in the liminal space between the dreamworld and our own. Joni Mitchell’s late-’70s work is certainly an important influence on Walker: folk, pop, jazz, and a belief that one should value the journey over the narrative all get thrown in the stew.

Key tracks: “In Castle Dome,” “Can’t Ask Why,” “Telluride Speed”

Cover notes: The cover is a painting entitled “Untitled No. 20” by abstract mixed-media artist Tim Hallinan.

Tier 2

Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel

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Australian rocker Courtney Barnett first started making waves in the states in 2014 when she performed her first Tiny Desk Concert. At the time, she struck me as a verbose folky with a punk bent mining the depths of the everyday. Since then, she’s evolved into a sort of poet laureate of the grunge-generation 25 years too late. On her newest release, her songs of the everyday are tinged with an increased feminist urgency (see “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”). Kim and Kelly Deal of The Breeders lend their grunge-era bonafides to two songs. The songwriting here is as strong as on her previous releases, but in the future, I’d love to see Barnett explore new, non-grunge musical directions.

Key tracks: “City Looks Pretty,” “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence”

Cover notes: Barnett clings to her punk/DIY aesthetics and credibility, but make no mistake, she’s a full-blown star at this point.

Big Red Machine: Big Red Machine

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Big Red Machine is the nickname of the Cincinnati Reds teams that won two World Series in the middle-’70s, but it’s also the name of the collaboration between The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. I’ve never made a secret of my love for both of these groups, so I was excited to check out this project’s debut album, allegedly a decade in the making. On the whole, this album does not disappoint; however, I have to admit it sure sounds a heck of lot more like Bon Iver than The National. That’s in part because Vernon is the vocalist for Big Red Machine and Bon Iver, but it’s also because the electronics, hip-hop production, and treated vocals that Bon Iver have come to be known by feature far more prominently than The National’s signature postpunk guitars and horns. None of that is a complaint; 2016’s 22, A Million is easily one of my five favorite releases of the last decade.  The real standout moment and revelation on this release is the R&B chorus that kicks in on “Lyla.”

Key tracks: “Gratitude,” “Lyla,” “Hymnostic”

Cover notes: Is that a magic eye? If you squint do you see a schooner?

Neko Case: Hell-On

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Folks are often quick to note Neko Case’s powerhouse vocals or songwriting skills, but the thing she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for is just how timeless all her records sound. And that’s all Neko. She sonically stewards her songs like a true artiste, and, with perhaps the exception of her very first record, she’s been doing it for the entirety of her discography. Many male artists get credit for how their records sound; why not Neko? Well, I think you know. It’s really one of the most impressive discographies of the 21st Century, and Hell-On fits in quite nicely with the rest of that catalogue. All of the Neko Case staples are here: the hooks, the atmospherics that simultaneously chill and comfort, the impressionistic lyrics, and, of course, that soaring, soaring voice.

Key tracks: “Last Lion of Albion,” “Bad Luck,” “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”

Cover notes: Witches are really having a bit of a moment right now, which is pretty cool in my book. Maybe Neko is a witch? Could explain how she’s been able to consistently churn out such stellar material for over two decades now.

Liz Cooper and The Stampede: Window Flowers

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This is one of four albums on this list by artists I discovered at the 2018 iteration of the Savannah Stopover Music Festival. If you’re in the Savannah area in early March, I can’t recommend this festival enough. It’s a great way to discover up-and-coming talent like Nashville three-piece Liz Cooper and the Stampede. On their debut album, Liz and the Stampede deliver a road-tested set of groove-heavy, psych-tinged, harmony-laden tracks. If you get a chance to see these cats live, I would encourage you to check them out.

Key tracks: “Mountain Man,” “Motions,” “Hey Man”

Cover notes: Another throwback cover. I dig the paisley font inlay.

Father John Misty: God’s Favorite Customer

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We’re all familiar with the relationship album. And, of course, the breakup album. But what about the trial separation album? That, my friends, is what we have here with God’s Favorite Customer, and good lord is it bleak. The only thing keeping this album from completely sinking beneath the earth is Josh Tillman’s usual brand of pop-cabaret melodies that jump off the speaker. Tillman’s brand of black humor is on display here, too, but this time around, it’s a little less clear whether we’re supposed to laugh or send him help.

Key tracks: “Mr. Tillman,” “Please Don’t Die,” “The Palace”

Cover notes: In the cover image, Tillman is cast between warm red and cool blue light, between heaven and hell. Is he turning toward hell or back toward heaven? We’ll have to tune into his next album to find out.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: Sparkle Hard

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Man, Malkmus is still churning out spaced-out guitar solos and esoteric lyrics 30 years in, all square-jawed good looks and stoner’s smirk. But on this release, he proves even the old dog can learn new tricks as he and the Jicks dabble in motorik rhythms on “Bike Lane” and country sentimentality on “Refute,” the latter featuring another Gen-X hero Kim Gordon dueting with Malkmus. This one didn’t blow my mind as much as their album Real Emotional Trash did a decade ago, but this is still probably the tightest set of songs Malkmus and the Jicks have ever released.

Key tracks: “Cast Off,” “Middle America,” “Refute”

Cover notes: The cover photo, by James Rexroad, depicts an elderly couple boating on what looks like a Mediterranean waterway, living their best life despite their advanced age. Having kicked around for decades now, Malkmus, like the couple, is still living his best (artistic) life on this album.

Caroline Rose: Loner

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For her sophomore album, Long Island-native Rose sheds the Americana leanings of her debut album for a more effervescent, keyboard-centric pop sound, and the results are infectious. Like a true pop tunesmith, beneath the hooks, Rose explores hardships, heartaches, and a deep-seated existential angst.

Key tracks: “More of the Same,” “Jeannie Becomes a Mom,” “Bikini”

Cover notes: The second album cover on this list to tip its cap to Wes Anderson. And the second cover to feature a comic and upsetting amount of cigarettes about to be lit.

Amanda Shires: To the Sunset

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The first time I saw Amanda Shires playing live was almost a decade ago when she was playing fiddle in Justin Townes Earle’s band. Although she was three albums into her solo career at that point, she was still primarily known for her work backing up other singer-songwriters. These days, reviewers still feel the need to identify her as Jason Isbell’s wife, but hopefully this album, largely built on brooding, absolutely-killer guitar tones, starts to change that. In fact, if this album is any indication, folks should start mentioning Isbell as the husband of Amanda Shires and not the other way around.

Key tracks: “Parking Lot Pirouette,” “Break Out the Champagne,” “Wasn’t I Paying Attention”

Cover notes: Despite operating in the oeuvre of Americana, there is a future-facing quality to both this cover, with its vaguely sci-fi font and bright purple tones, and the production on this album.

Jeff Tweedy: WARM

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Here he is, our fearless leader, the president and CEO of Dads, Inc., Mr. Jeffrey Scot Tweedy of Belleville, Illinois. If you don’t know that this guy is one of the best songwriters of the past quarter-century, an absolute devotee to the craft of songwriting, well, friend, you just haven’t been paying attention. At first blush, he makes it all look entirely effortless, but the truth is he devotes hours each day to writing songs.

WARM departs from his work as chief-songwriter and vocalist of Wilco in two important ways: 1) these are not the obtuse Jeff Tweedy lyrics we’ve come to know and love; they’re personal; they’re seemingly about Tweedy; and 2) Tweedy plays all the instruments on this album except the drums. As mentioned earlier, Nels Cline has played lead guitar for Wilco for years now, but as far as my money goes, I prefer Tweedy’s lead-playing on 2004’s A Ghost is Born, so hearing Tweedy’s axe-slinging here is a welcome surprise. Musically, as with Wilco, the songs here are agnostic toward the question of genre; however, a few of these cuts do represent some of the twangiest songs Tweedy has put out since the middle-’90s. And the title is fitting; there really is a warmth to these songs.

Key tracks: “Some Birds,” “Let’s Go Rain,” “I Know What It’s Like”

Cover notes: I was struck by a comment Tweedy made in a recent interview about the skills he developed to survive. Anyone who knows a little of Tweedy’s life story, or at least the parts of it that have been reported in the press, knows he’s certainly had his ups and downs, but he’s also, in many ways, had a wildly successful career. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of living as surviving, but in a way it rang true. We survive; we endure; we carry on. And something, some immutable quality we all learn somewhere, carries us through. We should celebrate that quality; we should celebrate ourselves; we should all hold our arms high in victory. As Tweedy also said in that interview: “it’s just getting better every day.”

Tier 1

Elvis Costello & The Imposters: Look Now

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After very nearly releasing an album every year between 1977 and 2013, it was somewhat shocking not to see a new Elvis Costello album in 2014, 2015, 2016, or 2017. Blessedly, the wait is over, and what we have here is Costello’s best and most quintessentially Elvis Costello-sounding album in at least two decades. However, despite sounding like an Elvis Costello record, there’s a surprisingly refreshing quality at play here. It’s familiar, but new: these songs feature fully formed pop arrangements with danceable backbeats. With a Carole King cowrite and three Burt Bacharach cowrites, Costello dubbed Look Now “an uptown pop record with a little swagger.” Indeed, the arrangements are richer than what we’ve seen from Costello in some time, with horns and group harmonies featuring prominently on a number of the tracks. It’s not a record I expected in 2018, but it ended up being one of the three or four albums I listened to the most this year.

Key tracks: “Don’t Look Now,” “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter,” “Unwanted Number”

Cover notes: Well, of all the album covers I’ve ever seen, this sure is one of them.

Parquet Courts: Wide Awake!

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Parquet Courts have been on my radar for five or six years now, and I’ve dug everything I’ve heard, but after hearing this record, I stopped digging and started full-on worshipping them. This is my favorite album of the year. This is the album we needed in this foul year of our lord, 2018: a record with a truly liberatory ethos, a record that juggles and jumbles genres while retaining a punk swagger and attitude, a record that sounds the alarm on the rising tides of fascism while pointing the way toward a new politics and a new world, a record that says “fuck Tom Brady”–and fuck all the Tom Bradys of the world–while demonstrating a deep empathy for those at the bottom of society’s hierarchical power structures, a record that demands motion. With production from Danger Mouse, this is as tightly wound a record as one could hope for. And it sounds great. And the songs are great. This isn’t just my favorite record of the year; it’s the best record of the year. Period. End of sentence. I won’t hear of any other contenders. If you haven’t heard it yet, please check it out. And pay extra close attention to the lyrics. We need these words now more than ever.

Key tracks: “Total Football,” “Before the Water Gets Too High,” “Freebird II”

Cover notes: This is a record that demands motion of its listener: get up and mosh, get up and dance, get up do somethingAs long as we remain stagnant, nothing will change. This cover–my favorite album cover of the year–connotes motion as well: with the way the green square is set against the pink border; with the way the headless figures are depicted  in lockstep, their squiggly arms flailing forward; with the way one figure’s hands suggest dancing, one figure’s hands signal peace, and one figure’s hand signals solidarity in revolution; with the way the title isn’t just depicted as “Wide Awake” but “WIDE AWAAAAAKE!”

Titus Andronicus: A Productive Cough

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Titus Andronicus are named after a Shakespearean tragedy and best known for a song cycle about the American Civil War and growing up in New Jersey, so it’s refreshing to see them release an album of seven barroom rockers that would make their fellow-Jersey-native Bruce Springsteen proud. Well, they’re not all barroom rockers. There is an 8-minute-long, guitars-to-11 rocker in there as well. So, yeah, the boys in Titus aren’t completely reinventing themselves on this one. But it is worth noting that I’d pay good money to see Patrick Stickles’s nightclub act. If this album is any indication, it sounds like it’d be a rowdy, good time.

Key tracks: “Number One (In New York),” “Above the Bodega (Local Business),” “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco’)”

Cover notes: Cute kids.

Wilder Maker: Zion

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Like all the best Cosmic American Music, there are a lot of different flavors in this burrito: boho big city experimentalism, university artiness, chilled-out bedroom pop and jazz, rhythms that extend beyond the purview of these continental United States, and big, juicy Ginsbergian turns of phrase staggering on tenement roofs illuminated. I saw these cats in concert months before Zion dropped, and at that set, album-opener “Closer to God” got its hooks in me in a way that had me salivating for the rest of the album. The whole thing does not disappoint, and in almost any other year, this would’ve cruised to the title of my favorite record of the year. But this is not a normal year; Parquet Courts went and made an all-timer. Nevertheless, Zion is very much worth your time.

Key tracks: “Closer to God,” “Impossible Summer,” “Gonna Get My Money”

Cover notes: Do the members of Wilder Maker face Zion? Or do they stand with their backs to Zion? Is there a difference?