Here are the albums of new music from 2018 that grabbed me on first or second listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for those that achieved Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to the ones I’ve previously reviewed are embedded in the album titles. But first, a graphic tease …
Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son: a welcome return to basics from a pioneer of Americana and roots music. For his first album in six years, Cooder focuses on vernacular gospel, singing without strain over homebrewed, homespun textures and breathtakingly lovely harmonies. A few cranky originals, but mostly a lovely survey of the genre’s best, inviting and startlingly serene.
Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Look Now: Costello’s best album in at least a decade. Sleek uptown pop with a lyrical edge, blending the expansive orchestration of Imperial Bedroom with sophisticated songcraft (including collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Carole King). Plus, the Imposters lay down silky, propulsive grooves throughout.
Glass Hammer, Chronomonaut: The adventures of Chronometree’s Tom Timely continue! Fred Schendel, Steve Babb and company (plus brilliant guests like Discipline’s Matthew Parmenter on vocals and Jamison Smeltz on solo sax) have produced the rare sequel that stacks up to the original, channeling 1970s rock radio at its eclectic finest to weave a spellbinding tale of past paradise lost — and what can be salvaged from its wreckage. After diving into GH’s back catalog this year, I’m in awe of their achievement across the decades — and Chronomonaut is an impressive new peak.
Kino, Radio Voltaire: Lonely Robot’s John Mitchell and Marillion’s Pete Trewavas revive their early Oughties supergroup, with help from It Bites’ John Beck and drummer-about-prog Craig Blundell. Irresistible melodic hooks, exciting riffage, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, passionate singing and meticulous craftsmanship abound. Whether echoing Trevor Rabin’s Yes, channelling McCartney-style optimism, or breaking your heart with killer ballads, this is a canny, rewarding mix of strong musical substance and broad appeal.
Gleb Kolyadin: iamthemorning’s brilliant pianist struts his stuff with a loosely connected suite of (mostly instrumental) pieces. Aggressive, dynamic, tasty playing and compositions, weaving influences from Bach and Tchaikovsky through Gershwin to Steve Reich and David Lynch into an mature, richly varied musical narrative. Great contributions from guest stars like Steve Hogarth, Jordan Rudess, Nick Beggs and Gavin Harrison too!
Perfect Beings, Vier: this LA trio took on the challenge of “a four-sided double vinyl album with four continuous compositions that cover one side of each album” — and stuck it. The cool, elegant musical journey (and I include the obviously dada lyrical content) is thoroughly, consistently enticing; something marvelous is always happening, and the band’s sense of invention seems inexhaustible. Vier demands to be heard in a single sitting — and then demands repeated listening!
Wayne Shorter, Emanon: The last saxophonist standing from jazz’s golden age, Shorter celebrates his 85th birthday with a suite of his music re-imagined for jazz quartet and chamber orchestra, a double album of his quartet’s 2016 live date in London, and a graphic novel (no digital editions here!). This is jazz not as time, chord changes, or even pure melody, but as everything at once. What surround sound and 3D aim for via technology, Shorter and his band achieve with ears, fingers, brain and heart: full-orbed, full-on improvisation at a rareified, ecstatic level.
The Tangent, Proxy: This one has rewarded repeated listens enough to make the favorites list. It’s turned out to be prime Tangent — Andy Tillison protesting, regretting and ranting, the tight new band line-up rumbling, gliding and soaring by turns. Gearing up with the craggy, polemical title track, Proxy goes from strength to strength, getting better as it ticks on, climaxing with Prog/EDM Epic of the Year “The Adulthood Lie” and the blistering new take on “Supper’s Off.” Immersive and irresistible, an organic whole, and musically sublime.
3.2, The Rules Have Changed: Robert Berry collaborated with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer to form the band 3 in 1988. Using the moniker 3.2, Berry succeeds at a daunting task — paying deeply felt homage to Emerson, whose shocking death thwarted the duo’s planned collaboration. Painstakingly crafted from Emerson’s fragmentary material, packed with inspired musicianship by Berry on songs that tackle weighty, thoughtful themes — matters of life and death, in fact — it’s music created to touch the heart, and to last. The achievement of Berry’s career.
And without further ado, My Top Favorites (that’s right, it’s a tie this year):
Rikard Sjoblom’s Gungfly, Friendship: A heartfelt reflection on how time and change forge, then dissolve even the deepest relationships; Sjöblom and his collaborators patiently shape bibs and bobs of folk, rock, jazz and prog into homespun suites — rootsy, spacey, gutsy — that effortlessly carry and reflect his poignant narrative of love and loss. Genuinely moving and thrilling by turns.
Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth: Savior of Jazz Washington lives up to the hype and goes beyond it on this three-disc cycle of music (based on: “Earth,”his experience; “Heaven,” his dreamed-of life; and the crux of “The Choice” between the two). Undeniable, imaginative chops from the extensive cast of West Coast jazzers and funksters, uncannily precise compositions and arrangements, a widescreen musical palette that sweeps from Art Blakey through Stravinsky to J Dilla, astounding ambition, and grand designs executed with style, grace and welcome for all with ears to hear. An album that proggers who claim not to care much about jazz need to check out!
— Rick Krueger