It was a good year for the troubadours — the modern-day equivalent to the town criers of old, and those who take it on themselves to inform and enlighten those within earshot to the dangers and the virtues of the world around them.
The modes of expression of today’s bards extend well beyond the solo voice with an acoustic guitar of yore, a genre broad enough to encompass elements of rock, blues, folk, country, gospel and R&B. The subjects they address are equally wide-ranging, from the haunting experiences of combat veterans and their families and social ills resulting from neighborhood gentrification to the simple joys of new love and the rewards of sticking to one’s guns against all odds.
Here are my favorite singer/songwriter albums of 2018:
1. Mary Gauthier, “Rifles & Rosary Beads” (In the Black)
A collaboration between esteemed Louisiana-bred singer-songwriter Gauthier and U.S. military combat veterans — male and female— is more than emotionally potent and more than lyrically insightful.
By also taking in observations from the spouses and family members of veterans, all in conjunction with the Songwriting With Soldiers program, this stands as the too-rare example of music that is genuinely important. These songs matter, as they express, with uncommon power, the harrowing experiences of the people who go to war — physically, emotionally and psychologically, in defense of everyone’s sacred freedoms. Consider “Rifles & Rosary Beads” required listening.
2. Ry Cooder, “The Prodigal Son” (Fantasy)
The revered roots music guitarist gets back to what he’s long done so well: playing guitar with exceptional expressive power and nuance and singing of matters personal and political.
Here he uses a combination of original songs and blues, gospel and folk chestnuts that in various ways reiterate Nick Lowe’s timeless question: What is so funny about peace, love and understanding?
3. John Prine, “Tree of Forgiveness” (Oh Boy)”
It’s been a spectacular year for the bard of Chicago, who at the age of 72 has been met with critical accolades and sold-out theaters and concert halls for his first album of new material in 13 years.
His wit remains inordinately piercing, and his ability to turn a phrase that can melt hearts is as strong as ever, one manifestation being that not one but two of the new songs — “Summer’s End” and “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” — just earned Prine and songwriting partner Pat McLaughlin Grammy nominations for best American roots song.
4. Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour”
One of the brightest country-music arrivals of recent years, Musgraves shows she can deliver more than lyrically sharp, melodically inviting songs that can appeal equally to progressive listeners and conservative radio programmers.
Her latest songs often state their case in more ambiguous but still compelling ways, less in-your-face than on her previous two albums, showing she’s as curious about expanding her horizons as she is in keeping her fans entertained.
5. Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, “Downey to Lubbock”
An Americana odd couple, at least that’s how it might have looked on paper.
But the Southern California roots rocker and the West Texas Zen cowboy find plenty of common ground for their sensibilities. The album’s high point is arguably Alvin’s imagined conversation between two iconic figures from the American West, “Billy the Kid and Geronimo.”
6. David Byrne, “American Utopia” (Nonesuch)
Playful as always, brilliant as ever, Byrne applies his disarming alien-in-his-own-backyard perspective across 10 captivating songs, from the proud-to-be-nerdy opening track “I Dance Like This” to “Bullet,” an intricate play-by-play of violence and destruction. He assembled one of the most inventive rock tours ever to bring these songs to live in concert halls.
7. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, “Tearing at the Seams” (Stax)
The follow-up to the neo-soul band’s 2015 debut keeps the good vibrations flowing, as Rateliff injects unusually elliptical ideas into visceral vintage R&B musical settings. That music allows the band to convey a multiplicity of emotions in a song like the irresistible “You Worry Me,” in which Rateliff’s unflinching gaze extends as far inward as outward at someone who’s in jeopardy of losing faith.
8. Rosanne Cash, “She Remembers Everything” (Blue Note)
Cash writes songs of exquisite beauty and much-needed reassurance amid exceedingly troubled times. She never flinches from those troubles, but also refuses to give into them. She understands the comfort found in shared struggle, which she seems to outline in “My Least Favorite Life”: “The whisper of two broken wings/Maybe they're yours, maybe they're mine.”
9. Ashley McBryde, “Girl Going Nowhere”(Warner Music Nashville)
Yet another take-no-prisoners addition to contemporary country music, McBryde weds impeccable craft with acute vision that place her in the estimable country of such firebrands as Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price and Brandy Clark.
10. I’m With Her, “See You Around” (Rounder)
Scintillating three-part harmonies from accomplished solo singer-songwriters Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz are a key part of the motivating force that brought them together in this new configuration. The fact that all three are ace songwriters as well brings a lyrical gravitas that lends intellectual and emotional depth to the vocal beauty.