Open arms. A welcoming spirit. That was the thread that stood out in the process of assembling a Top 10 albums list for 2018. It’s explicitly there, connected to and driven by the border conflicts and crossings of our times, in several of these albums: There’s “Refugee,” a song by Moira Smiley inspired by and featuring people she’d met while working in a refugee encampment in France. There’s “Dreamers,” the album bringing together Mexican-born singer Magos Herrera and NYC string quartet Brooklyn Rider, mixing songs of oppression written by various Latin American musicians and poets with the anger vs. hope conflicts now happening in this country over our border policies. And there’s “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” a Blind Willie Johnson song from the 1920s, pointedly made a centerpiece of Ry Cooder’s “The Prodigal Son.”
It’s also there in other ways through all of the choices, albums that resonated and astonished on many levels, both artistic and emotional: Angelique Kidjo’s reimagining of Talking Heads’ landmark “Remain in Light,” Kamasi Washington’s ever-expansive, ever-expanding jazz universe bridging “Heaven and Earth,” the War and Treaty’s connubial joy as spark for us all to surf a “Healing Tide,” Julia Holter’s stunningly unclassifiable flights in “Aviary,” the “Vanished Gardens” meeting of the spirits of jazz master Charles Lloyd and roots-poet Lucinda Williams, the poetry of love and exploration of Mitski with her breakthrough “Be the Cowboy,” the exuberant strut through ages of traditions and into the future of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian troupe Cha Wa on “Spyboy.”
Choosing one as the year’s top album proved impossible and, perhaps, pointless. The range they cover, the joy they bring, defies ranking. So here they are, randomly ordered. Take them with open arms and a welcoming spirit.
Moira Smiley, “Unzip the Horizon”
It’s a bracingly wide-ranging set of original songs drawing on everything from her experience in chorale work to explorations of Eastern European folk music to her time as a touring singer and percussionist with boisterous pop experimentalists Tune-Yards. Tying it all together are with two traditional American songs from the repertoire of blues singer Sidney Hemphill Carter, as recorded in 1959 by folklorist Alan Lomax.
She also enlisted an impressive roster of other voices for Unzip: Leah and Chloe Smith from Rising Appalachia, English neo-traditionalist Sam Lee, folk-and-more duo Anna & Elizabeth, Seamus Egan of the Irish-American band Solas, banjo innovator Jayme Stone, and participants from the Calais Sessions — a recording project with international musicians working with refugees, many of them unaccompanied children, living in hardship of the Calais “jungle,” a makeshift encampment in France.
And then there’s Tune-Yards’ life-force, Merrill Garbus, partnering on the rhythm-forward “Bellow,” which serves somewhat as the album’s mission statement: “Please don’t give up. Please don’t hide your voice. So many people did not have that choice.”
The War and Treaty, “Healing Tide”
It’s a love story through and through, evidenced in song titles alone: “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” (the album’s foot-stomping gospel invocation), “Are You Ready to Love Me?,” (swampy Southern soul), “Here Is Where the Loving Is” (fiddles and guitars and Emmylou Harris!) among them. And a belief that love is contagious, that it can repair the world — the boisterous title song (a bit of Ike and Tina and a lot of Delaney & Bonnie, perhaps), the steamed-windows twinkle of “Jeep Cherokee Laredo.” And in “One and the Same” they have given us unity anthem for the ages. All of the ages. And in album-closing “Little New Bern,” Michael wrote a vivid ode to Tanya’s large, loving family and the former plantation land where it began and at which all the cousins still gather with her grandparents (73 years of marriage!) every summer.
Magos Herrera and Brooklyn Rider, “Dreamers”
Most of singer Magos Herrera’s new album, a collaboration with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, draws on words and music written decades ago by Latin American poets and composers who spoke out against oppression, at the risk of their freedom and, in some cases, their lives. These are complemented by the haunting folk song “La Llarona,” already a staple of the Mexican canon but now globally known via its prominent place in the animated movie Coco.
But [this] is also very much of the moment, in the moment, tied to circumstances of the here and now, pointedly so. This is music with immediacy, with a purpose.“I think these days we don’t have the luxury not to have a purpose,” says Herrera. The title of her album gives that purpose shape: Dreamers.
“It’s the spirit of our times, at least to me, after some time of confusion, showing how we got into these times, not only for what happens in America but in the world,” she says. “It was in invitation to ground in the reason why we make music and the purpose of our artistry and our music. And also because one of the first reasons I moved to New York 11 years ago was for all the opposite virtues of what we see — democracy, conversation, interaction, etc. The long story short is [the album] is really a response to what happens to the spirit of our times, beyond complaining.”
Julia Holter, “Aviary”
Julia Holter, in the course of the last decade or so, has emerged as one of the most ambitious and accomplished artists in L.A., and beyond. And with her new album, “Aviary,” she reaches even further than ever. While not really sounding like any of them, this does call to mind of some things from Bjork, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson and such ostensibly contemporary classical composers as Missy Mazzoli, Julia Wolfe and David Lang, the latter two having won Pulitzer Prizes.
Over the course of the album there are mixes of impressionism and expressionism, her group sort of a chamber ensemble with strings mixed with electric instruments, some digital experiments with voice and sounds alternately soothing and jarring. One element she draws on heavily is words and some melodies from the European troubadours of the 13th and 14th centuries. So that really cinches this album for me. One song that uses that, as well as a quote from Dante, is “I Shall Love,” a lush, sensual proclamation of pure elation and beauty.
Angelique Kidjo, “Remain in Light”
It’s not simply a remake of the Talking Heads’ 1980 landmark, but a stunning reimagining by the visionary Benin-born artist Kidjo. She doesn’t merely repatriate (er, rematriate) the African influences that fueled TH’s revolutionary stream-of-consciousness masterpiece — which opened the door for many to discover the wealth of those inspirations — she considers and explores the worlds that have emerged in African music in the time since, all brought together via her singular talents and sensibilities.
And in doing so, she didn’t merely extract the burbling rhythms and elastically elliptical lines and reshape them as Afrobeat or highlife. She applied her own depth of vision to the material, her own cultural roots, and her embrace of many musical streams to make something distinctly hers, in some places blending in the traditional tunes she grew up with in Benin, in others broadening the perspective to what might be called Afro-Global. Crucially, she locked into the often-perplexing, arty off-kilter lyrics and invested them with her complex, incisive worldview, adding new words here in there, sometimes in Fon, the language of her father. “Remain in Light” was arguably the album of the year for ’80, and so it may be again for ’18.
Ry Cooder, “The Prodigal Son”
Cooder’s career has taken us on a musical journey around the globe (producing Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, a duo album with Mali’s Ali Farka Touré, among many projects). In recent years he’s told tales of Southern California’s colorful history, including “Chavez Ravine” about the displacement of a community to make way for Dodger Stadium. Now he turns, well, home, as the title “The Prodigal Son” suggests.
This is a return dive into the American folk and blues of the early 20th century, marked by Cooder’s distinctive and informed perspective and his supreme guitar and slide playing. Blind Willie Johnson, Alfred Reed, Carter Stanley and the good ol’ “Traditional” are all represented here. And, in the prodigal mode, it’s illuminated by lessons learned along the way, as encapsulated in the title song, a traditional tune arranged vibrantly by Cooder and his co-producer, percussionist son Joachim.
As the title also suggests, there’s a lot of the Bible here, gospel songs explicitly evoking Jesus, God and the promise of heaven. But for him, it’s not a matter of religion but reverence. It’s also a matter of relevance. In “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” learned from Blind Willie Johnson’s recording, Ry makes specific references to the immigrant issues of right now.
Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, “Vanished Gardens”
Excerpted from my liner notes for the album:
When Lucinda Williams joined Charles Lloyd & The Marvels at UCLA’s Royce Hall in April 2017, the musicians beamed with unbridled joy. Same for the fans fortunate to witness, to share the depths of the artistry and exploration happening on stage. There were tears, too, as Williams reached inside herself for expressions of love, longing and loss in equal measures. But the image that remains strongest from this remarkable night is of Lloyd, radiant and enchanted, at times not even playing, just taking in the wonders of this grouping that had come together around him.
That same energy and elation buzzed through the compact sessions in a Los Angeles studio that brought us the luminescent music heard on this album, Lloyd and Williams with the singular set of talents that comprise the Marvels: Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on steel, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums — musicians who just as Lloyd and Williams have done have set their own courses, found their own ways of expression and exploration, while thriving most profoundly in sparks-filled collaborative settings.
Unlock, the word that later in the album starts the song “Unsuffer Me,” a deep exposition of vulnerable, fought-for hope, describes it perfectly. Unlock my love. The state of the music, the state of these musicians, is open. Opening. Active. Seeking, expanding, exploring. Being and becoming. Williams draws power and strength from it, infusing that into her delivery, giving life to the hope, as well as the hurt, of the words. And in turn, the musicians become the words that Williams sings, extending beyond the words into the pure expression, stretching the song to nearly a dozen breathtaking minutes.
This album comes as Lloyd celebrates his 80th birthday and almost seven decades as a working musician. You can draw a line to this new music from his very first gigs at age 12 in his hometown of Memphis when he played alongside Roscoe Gordon, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, or Johnny Ace, and when pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. was his early music mentor and trumpeter Booker Little was his childhood best friend. Not a straight line, not by any means, but a strong one, marked by his resolute vision.
The collective inspiration and provocation, in the most positive sense of that word, courses through every song here, every note. No two pieces here are shaped the same, nor do any of them hold to any predictable shape. The country air breathed on I Long to See You breezes through “Ballad of The Sad Young Men,” embodied in Leisz’s pedal steel. New colors emerge from Williams’ romantic road-trip “Ventura.”
And listen how Lloyd’s solemn sax intro seeds the fervent determination of Williams’ new, gospel-informed, “We Have Come Too Far to Turn Around,” or how his playful flute skips in tandem with Frisell’s guitar through “Blues for Langston and LaRue,” or the muted conversation the two of them have (Lloyd back on sax) on Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood.” That, in turn, leads to Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” with Williams’ full-hearted interpretation closing the album on a note of benediction. If “Defiant” starts Vanished Gardens with a call to action, “Angel” ends it with a perfect prayer for peace.
Kamasi Washington, “Heaven and Earth”
Even more so than his prodigious talents, ambitions and vision, “Heaven and Earth” affirms that saxophonist/composer Kamasi Washington’s most notable attribute may be his generosity. And that’s not just a matter of musical quantity, though that is notable as well — between this album and his 2015 breakthrough “The Epic” there’s more than five hours combined of spectacular and instantly appealing modern jazz, not even counting the 38-minute bonus disc sealed inside the packaging of this release. What’s really impressive is how giving he is to his musical cohorts, a community that he was key in assembling, going back to the days when some of them were schoolmates at L.A,’s Alexander Hamilton High in the ‘90s.
Sure, it’s his show — he is the only person on the front cover (walking on water, no less), and it’s mostly his compositions. But throughout he often takes a background role and lets others take their turn leading. Pianist Cameron Graves, bassist Miles Mosley, trombonist Ryan Porter and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., for that matter, have all released albums in recent years with variations of this same core lineup, including Washington himself. In that regard, Washington’s nominal releases are merely part of a larger communal whole.
Though there really is no “merely” about “Heaven and Earth.” As was the case with “The Epic,” this is BIG in every way: bold horns, powerful rhythms, a full orchestra (including 19 strings players), not to mention a roster of four lead singers and a baker’s-dozen-strong choir massed in soaring melodies, some with lyrics and some just with glorious sounds. And glorious it all is, right from the opening interpretation of the tense Bruce Lee movie theme “Fists of Fury” through the taught funk of “Street Fighter Mas” (a different vibe than anything on “The Epic,” perhaps reflecting his work in Mosley’s West Coast Get Down, the ensemble from which Washington’s aggregate evolved) through the joyous release of the version of the Five Stairsteps’ 1970 hit “Ooh Child” which closes the bonus disc.
Mitski, “Be the Cowboy”
Life in the view of 28-year-old Mitski Miyawaki is a constant ballet of emotional ropes entwining and fraying, of forces attracting and repelling, of minds obsessing and deflecting, imploring and ignoring. Not that she’s the first artist of any form, of any age, by any means, to try to connect those poles and dissect or define the space between.
But she does so in much more direct fashion than most have managed, both in the the brevity of expression — 14 songs here in 33 efficient, yet distinctively and creatively crafted musical minutes — and the sharp, jagged points of her words, aimed outward and inward at once. As in: “ ‘Cause nobody butters me up like you, And nobody fucks me like me…” from the song “Lonesome Love.” Yikes.
Sure, sometimes she can seem a prisoner of her own head, a characteristic shaped perhaps by a childhood of frequent moves to new locales around the globe. But on her fifth album overall, second on a “real” label, she smooths some previously barbed points, sometimes merely with a confidently cooing tone, an almost matter-of-fact delivery that bespeaks her growing strength. Which only makes the cracks in the mirror more dramatic.
Cha Wa, “Spyboy”
Hearing the debut and lone album by the Wild Tchoupitoulas in the late ‘70s, with its vibrant New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian chants featuring Big Chief George Landry backed by a band involving his nephews, which would soon evolve into the Neville Brothers, was an epiphany. Going to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time in ’91 and seeing various “tribes” in action, with their rainbow of feathers and beads and powerful performances, even more so. And finally making it for Super Sunday, the gathering of the tribes parading and then challenging each other via costumes (“You’re the prettiest!”) and songs — as opposed to the more violent means of storied but tragic past — in spring of this last year even more more more so. This is one of this country’s most distinct and rich cultural phenomena, not merely a tradition but a living tradition, constantly evolving.
Cha Wa, a young tribe, is bursting with that life, and in turn breathing new life into it. The outfit’s second album is a constant joy, rooted in and deeply honoring generations’ worth of legacy, while moving it forward with a powerful, exuberant strut. No wonder it’s nominated both for the Regional American Roots Grammy Award and the best funk band honor in New Orleans magazine Offbeat’s Best of the Beat honors.