After two consecutive annual lists that have been mired in mellow indie rock, I’m happy to report that my picks for the best albums of 2018 are a bit more diverse – soul, folk, rafter-shaking arena rock, and even dubstep are represented, as are venerable masters and young guns. This year’s winners are also, as in the past, testaments to the art form. With one or two arguable exceptions, they hang together as cohesive works and are meant to be listened to in their entirety, from beginning to end. And not just these, but other worthy runners-up by Beach House, Fantastic Negrito, the 1975, and Christine and the Queens. 2018 really was an embarrassment of riches musically.
Compiling the list filled me with great hope for the future of the album as a medium. That’s ironic, given that industry analysts are now predicting its death, felled by millennial brats with the attention spans of gnats who are spurning full-length releases in favour of streaming annoying, disposable singles to their phones, when they’re not stealing music outright, the thieving little bastards. Okay, the analysts don’t use those words exactly; that’s my take on the data they’ve published. (I am not a grumpy old man! Get off my lawn!) And what grim data it is. According to a report by the Recording Industry Association of America, sales of CDs have plummeted a disastrous 41.5 percent in recent months and the slow but steady resurgence of vinyl is not happening fast enough to close the gap. (Downloading is also on the way out, down 58% since 2012.) But if it’s party over, oops, out of time, for the album – to paraphrase a line from the title track of another classic, cohesive work of art – let’s take a moment to honour this medium that has given us so many masterpieces. Pet Sounds. Abbey Road. Tapestry. What’s Going On? Born to Run. London Calling. Thriller. Nevermind. And on and on and on.
I’ll post my selections for this year’s hall of fame one at a time over the next several weeks, starting with #10 below and working my way to #1 probably around mid-January, depending on how distracted I get during the holidays. And who knows? Maybe at the end of 2019 there will only be a paltry few album releases to choose from, and I’ll have to fill out the remainder of my list with Camila Cabello and Justin Bieber singles. If that happens, I may crawl off into a cave somewhere and wait for the apocalypse, humming the whole of Dark Side of the Moon repeatedly to myself until it comes.
10. Bettye LaVette – Things Have Changed
Soulful septuagenarian LaVette – she’ll be 73 in January – has garnered substantial late-career acclaim for a string of covers albums that showcase her formidable interpretive skills. Of these, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, her 2006 collection of songs by female songwriters, including Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, and Aimee Mann, remains the close-to-perfect standout. Less successful was 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which found LaVette awkwardly applying her swamp-blues rasp to veddy English prog rock compositions by Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues. For her latest, she’s chosen to cover Bob Dylan tunes, and the Nobel Laureate proves to be a natural fit – for the most part. LaVette easily slides into the groove of the title track, the Oscar-winning song Dylan wrote for soundtrack of the 2000 film Wonder Boys. And she infuses the deep cut “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” from Dylan’s underrated 1983 gem Infidels, with so much grit and passion that her version very nearly surpasses the original. The only misstep here is the jarring overhaul of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which transforms the iconic folk anthem into a bouncy blues-rock number reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About,” but sacrifices the gravitas of the original in the process.