Is there some law that says the worse it gets in the world out there, the better it gets in the arts? It was an outstanding year for music. Highlights for me were discovering the incredible jazz+++ scene in diasporic London, as eloquent a fuck you to the white Anglo mean-mindedness of Brexit as I can imagine, and slowly excavating the assembled talents of the West Coast Get Down—which turns out to be much more than just (the phenomenal) Kamasi Washington. It has also been a spectacular year for that peculiar category comprising stuff recorded way back when but only released for the first time this year, meaning it is not a reissue. Most years I combine both in my top 10, but this year was so rich overall that I’ve made separate lists.
#1 Record of the Year
Janelle Monáe Dirty Computer
The range of her imagination on this record is astonishing. Not a weak track over 4 sides. My favorite LP side of the year (A 2) has three very different varieties of joy: “Screwed” (featuring Zoë Kravitz), “Django Jane” (just Janelle, laying down the most kickass rap I’ve heard in 2018), “Pink” (featuring Grimes). Warning: the download that comes with the LP beeps out all the fuck words.
The rest of the Top Ten (in alphabetical order)
Ambrose Akinmusire Origami Harvest
The record company blurb sums it up nicely: “a surprisingly fluid study in contrasts that pits contemporary classical wilding against deconstructed hip-hop, with bursts of left-field jazz, funk, spoken word, and soul with help from the Mivos Quartet and art-rap expatriate Kool A.D. (Das Racist), along with pianist Sam Harris, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and saxophonist Walter Smith III.” No, really, it’s a stunner. Reminds me of the best of Uri Caine (like his Mahler recordings), which is high praise indeed.
Moses Boyd Exodus Displaced Diaspora
Recorded in 2015, i.e., just before the contemporary London jazz scene exploded internationally, featuring Theon Cross (tuba), Nubya Garcia (bass clarinet), Nathaniel Cross (trombone), and Zara McFarlane (vocals) in addition to Moses Boyd on drums. The Bandcamp website tags it under experimental hip hop beats jazz space music London, which seems about right.
Brandi Carlile The Joke
The songwriting is uniformly strong (try “The Mother”) but it’s that huge, soaring, effortless voice. You can get lost in it. Usually only operatic sopranos thrill me like that.
Alejandro Escovedo The Crossing
I don’t usually go for concept albums, because usually the concept overwhelms the album. This one is an exception. The concept is the immigrant experience. Escovedo seems hardly known outside Texas, where he is somewhere between a legend and a god. A pity. This album has huge musical variety and great emotional depth.
Nubya Garcia When We Are (EP)
We first heard Nubya on We Out Here (see below) where she plays on five tracks, and were lucky enough to see her with her own band (Nubya on tenor sax, Joe Armon-Jones on keyboards, Daniel Casimir on double bass, Femi Coleoso on drums) at Ronnie Scott’s in London (where we also saw Ambrose Akinmusire). She can honk squeak with the best of them, but its the unfailing warmth and luminosity of her tone that always gets to me.
Pistol Annies Interstate Gospel
A top ten albums from me without a country offering is unthinkable but it was getting to look that way (see disappointments of the year, below) until this arrived through the mail this week. Thank you Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angeleena Presley.
Ryan Porter The Optimist
Recorded in Kamasi Washington’s parents’ basement in 2008-9, this triple album brings together West Coast Get Down veterans Ryan Porter (trombone), Kamasi Washington (tenor saxophone), Miles Mosley (upright bass), Cameron Graves (piano, fender rhodes), Tony Austin (drums), Jumaane Smith (trumpet), and more. What Kamasi was before he Busby Berkeleyed it with cinematic strings and those god-awful choirs. Great jazz.
Sons of Kemet Your Queen Is a Reptile
Best of British for an era when the geriatric white majority is settling for blue passports to nowhere. An angry album, and rightly so (read the sleeve notes). Shabaka Hutchins (tenor sax), Theon Cross (tuba), and Tom Skinner + Seb Rochfort or Eddie Hicks + Moses Boyd on drums depending on the track. Nubya Garcia on tenor sax and Congo Natty and Joshua Idehen (rap) guest. Heady, polyrhythmic, driving stuff. Saw them at Vancouver Jazz Festival, a riveting performance. Luci hates it.
Various artists We Out Here
The Brownswood compilation double-album that introduced me to the London jazz+++ scene. If it wasn’t for Janelle Monáe this would be my undisputed #1. These are the tracks:
A1. Maisha – Inside The Acorn
A2. Ezra Collective – Pure Shade
B1. Moses Boyd – The Balance
B2. Theon Cross – Brockley
C1. Nubya Garcia – Once
C2. Shabaka Hutchings – Black Skin, Black Masks
C3. Triforce – Walls
D1. Joe Armon-Jones – Go See
D2. Kokoroko – Abusey Junction
Nuff said. Here is the Brownswood documentary that went with it.
Best five older recordings first issued in 2018
#1 Miles Davis and John Coltrane The Final Tour (The Bootleg Series, vol. 6)
Trane is incandescent, especially on CD 4. Luci would like everyone to know that this is her favorite album of 2018 and that most of that London jazz+++ stuff is *very difficult* to doze off to.
and the rest—
Bob Dylan More Blood, More Tracks
Charles Mingus Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden
Thelonius Monk Mønk
John Coltrane Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album
2018 Honorable Mentions
In most other years any of these would make it into my top ten list, but it’s 2018 so they didn’t.
Boygenius (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus) Boygenius (EP)
Lucy Dacus Historian
Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams Vanished Gardens
Maisha There Is a Place
Mitski Be the Cowboy
Most Played Album This Year
Nubya Garcia Nubya’s 5. Recorded in 2017, second vinyl pressing 2018. Her first album as leader, backed by Joe Armon-Jones / Piano, Moses Boyd / Drums, Daniel Casimir / Bass, Femi Koloeso / Drums, Sheila Maurice-Grey / Trumpet, Theon Cross / Tuba
Disappointment of the Year
A close-run thing between Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour (very clever but left me cold), Joe Armon-Jones Starting Today (love his work but somehow this offering never gelled as an album), and Kamasi Washington Heaven and Earth (too much concept, way too much choir—though as ever with him some great blowing).