Written by William Tokash (@TwangChicago)
My Love/Hate relationship with Spotify oscillated back toward Love as the end of the year came along. The Love part is grounded in my ability to find and sample an extraordinary amount of new music that satisfies my “fresh water through a shark’s gills” need to find new artists. The Hate part is derived from my view of Spotify as a platform that enables a modern day “musician’s sharecropper” business model given the paltry and unequal royalty payout schemes they employ.
The “Swing Back to Love” turn came from the annual listening algorithms Spotify employed to track and communicate my 2018 listening interests. This summary allowed me to tack some fact-based analysis onto my take on this year’s best releases. So here is a short summary of my subjectively-driven, but somewhat analytically-validated Top 10 list of 2018 records.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Years Sarah Shook and the Disarmers back up the sheer depth of Sarah’s vocal magic with timeless, thoughtful lyrics and memorable melodies that transcend the depth of the emotions being conveyed. As I highlighted in my review, I sense the full range of heartbreak countered by punk rock independence and assertiveness in her voice across the ten new songs on Years, her standout second release on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records.
Charley Crockett, Lonesome as a Shadow At Charley Crockett’s May, 2018 show at Fitzgerald’s, his bluesy, country soul-drenched catalogue of originals and deep cut covers plays out like a teachable moment of Roots Music Appreciation. His original songs sounded timeless, and his covers sound new and fresh. On his 2018 release, Lonesome as a Shadow, he continues his meteoric rise. Charley’s enthusiasm and respect for the classics indicates he may have missed his true calling as an American music historian.
Sam Morrow, Concrete and Mud On Concrete and Mud, Sam Morrow’s third album on Forty Below Records, the LA-based Texas signer songwriter lays down a hook-drenched, outlaw-inspired country funk record influenced by what I imagine is a worn-out mixed cassette tape of Little Feat, Tony Joe White, and Waylon tunes. I sadly missed Sam’s stop in Chicago earlier this year, but I stand ready to take him in if he can make it out here for a return visit.
Red Shahan, Culberson County Red Shahan’s 2018 release combines haunting pedal steel riffs, jaunty guitar licks, and emotional, West Texas narrative lyricism that evokes influences ranging from Whiskeytown and Hayes Carll to Woody Guthrie. I sense that Red has positioned himself well for a breakout career. As Red highlights on Waterbill, “You ain’t livin’ til your livin’ life broke!”
Jesse Daniel (Self Titled) Jesse Daniel’s 2018 debut release is a melody-and-hook laden gem of a record filled with matter-of-fact lyrical expression of life’s basic travails fueled by equal parts of white-line fever-based outlaw, rockabilly, and (the good kind of) countrypolitan balladry. The future looks bright for this Santa Cruz, California- based twanger.
Pat Reedy & the Longtime Goners, That’s All There Is (And Their Ain’t No More) New Orleans native Pat Reedy earned his street cred busking the streets of the Big Easy, but he now hails from Nashville, where Pat balances his day-time construction job with his night-time interests in laying down homespun country music perfection. Pat’s classic country style is a perfect blend of pedal steel guitar riffs, Cajun-style fiddle, and some banjer here and there, all bound together by straight-up, timeless melodies coated in thoughtful, and, at times, wry lyrics. I am looking forward to see if Pat and the Longtime Goners can get to Chicago sometime in 2019.
Chelsea Nolan, Chelsea I first came across Chelsea Nolan on WB Walker’s Old Soul Radio Show while listing in on one of WB’s famous Heartworn Highways-inspired Barn and Grill live shows. I was instantly impressed with her lyrical expressiveness and smooth country vocal style. Her debut EP, Chelsea., is a straight up, hills-of-Kentucky twanger with catchy melodies and sincere lyrics that show she’s just beginning to scratch the surface of her talents.
Brent Cobb, Providence Canyon I admit I am a straight-away sucker for southern fried, country funk, and on Brent Cobb’s 2nd major label release on Low Country Sound, he lays down some early 1970s Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark-inspired gems. I know Brent’s cuzzy Dave is All the Rage these days, and now that’s he’s been opening for Chris Stapleton on the road, he’s getting to be a big deal. But this record is a great listen from front to back. Here’s to hoping Brent doesn’t succumb to mainstream pressures and let his sound get too polished now that he’s attained some success.
Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, Love’s Middle Name Sarah Borges is an artist I did not know much about til I dug in on her 2018 release, Love’s Middle Name. Sarah and the Broken Singles blend rootsy, indie rock licks with warm, smokey, soulful vocals and even a dash of Johnathan Richman & the Modern Lovers-inspired simplicity here and there. This record works best on tracks like House on a Hill, Let Me Try It, and Can’t Change It. Heading into 2019, I’ve got some catching up to do across the depth of Sarah’s discography to date.
Joshua Hedley, Mr. Jukebox Classic country recording artist Joshua Hedley proudly states that, “something can’t be a throwback if it has never gone out of style.” His debut release on Third Man Records is a pure testament to the timelessness of pure countrypolitan gold. The record is laden with piano and lush strings overlain on fiddle, guitar, and pedal steel magic. Close your eyes, fire up your headphones, and take a trip back in time, George Jones-style.