Women Made the Best Albums of 2018.
Female songwriters topped publications’ year-end music polls, but few lists captured the gamut of their ages, genres, and talents. From the #MeToo movement to politics, parenthood, aging, race, gender status, marriage, family heritage, immigration, God, sex, and equal rights, women’s stories filled the year’s most exciting — and personal — recordings.
Here are my favorites:
Rosanne Cash She Remembers Everything
The term “badass” is so overused, so I won’t employ it here. I’ll just say that Rosanne Cash is tough and sweet and thoughtful and fearless in her songwriting, and for these qualities, I admire her deeply. (She’s also an incredible activist and an amplified voice for gun control in the U.S.) Her catalog stretches back to the 1970s, and she has a graceful long arc upon which to build her story, which enables her 14th album She Remembers Everything to be the perfect encapsulation of where she is in life right now as a 63-year-old mother and grandmother. Her parents were famous, but her words have always been very much her own: The simple truths of “Everyone But Me” will make you cry; “8 Gods of Harlem” will make you think; “Not Many Miles to Go” will make you tap your feet. The industry may consider her the queen of Americana music, but to me, she’s just Rosanne, my guide. I’m a decade or so behind her in age, and these new songs make the path to the future feel safe for me. It’s the quiet confidence in her voice, the smart and careful prose, the melodies that stick around. Forward march.
Tracey Thorn Record
Everything But the Girl’s music has saved my life on more than one occasion. Without the British duo (including Tracey and her partner in music and love, Ben Watt), I may have gone off the deep end. What I love best about Tracey’s latest solo Record is its combination of storytelling, groove, and a sense of time and place. When I listen, it feels like Tracey and you and I and the music are all orbiting this world at the same speed. She boils life down to the truths, moving from anxieties of social awkwardness (“Air”), making/mothering “Babies,” and fighting like a girl (“Sister”) to taking us out on the “Dancefloor” while the DJ spins Chic’s “Good Times” and Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.” It’s heavenly fun, and I’m so there for every minute of it.
Swing Out Sister Almost Persuaded
The stories here are about finding context for love in all of life’s situations. From track 1’s mysterious mood (“Don’t Give the Game Away,” which many fans hope could be the next James Bond theme) to the coy “Be My Valentine” and its brilliant vocal cadences, there’s absolutely no filler. If I had a dollar for every Swing Out Sister song I played while scheming a new adventure or twirling alone in my living room with the afternoon sun streaming through the windows, I’d be a billionaire. Almost Persuaded gives us all the riches and irresistibleness of the long-underrated Corinne Drewery and her partner Andy Connell — the grand melodies, jazzy keys, horns, percussion, backing vocals, and optimistic lyrics about keeping your chin up in this era of political upheaval. Plus, the album (a Pledge Music project) represents the independent spirit and persistence of real musicians who are continuing to make their way in the world when so many artists are underpaid, pop songs are written by algorithms, and technology leaves us no time to daydream. Corinne is my spirit animal.
Angelique Kidjo Remain In Light
This year, Angelique Kidjo released her remake of the Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light. Technically, she didn’t write these stories and songs, but she brilliantly flipped the narrative of an American rock band’s dalliances and obsessions with African rhythms to reflect her own West African musical heritage. She is one of the continent’s best-known and beloved performers and is a tireless advocate for empowering women and girls through her own nonprofit and a handful of global poverty-fighting including and UNICEF, Oxfam, and ONE. Listen to her powerhouse versions of “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On,” “Once In A Lifetime,” and “The Great Curve” and be transported to her childhood in Benin and across decades of her world-spanning concert tours. Everyone who meets Angelique is beguiled by her all-encompassing energy, and this gale-force album is a jolt of the same electricity. It’s like the B-12 shot you never knew could make you feel so invincible. The biggest hug right back to you, Kidjo.
Kasey Musgraves Golden Hour
If you thought millennials had lost touch with the physical world in favor of the virtual one, think again: 30-year-old Kasey Musgraves is singing about Texas and her grandmother being upset that she pierced her nose, and then a cello swerves and we all wake up in a 21st-century love song. That’s how Golden Hour rolls: we’re down a dirt road, up on a rooftop, clocking into work, visiting the bar at the weekend, feeling lonely because our siblings live out of town. We keep looking at our phones, feeling so much FOMO, but we won’t stop being awed by little pleasures in life — like butterflies, superheroes, and rock stars (Wonder Woman and Velvet Elvis, anyone?). How we all got here, nobody knows, but there are all kinds of magic all around us, and none of it is too good to be true. What a world, indeed. Sublime!
Janelle Monae Dirty Computer
Janelle Monae didn’t need a collaborator like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson to kick off her latest album, but we humans are grateful for the earthly harmonies that soothe us before the space travel begins. Monae’s a futurist, and Dirty Computer is the lens through which she imagines next-level existence without boundaries, borders, genders, and mores. There’s Stevie Wonder’s voice, ghosts of civil rights activists and Prince, and Django Jane — Monae’s take-no-prisoners storytelling rant where she recounts her rise to fame from Kansas City and Atlanta to conquering the music, fashion, and film industries in spite of “dressing like a man”: “Let the vagina have a monologue,” she stomps. She’s a warrior.
Florence and the Machine High As Hope
Songstress Florence Welch is a poet, which means her dramatic verses and stage spins can be too austere and romantic for judgemental meme culture. Yet, for the rest of us, she is an artist who respects history, Shakespeare, flowing gowns, angels, and the spiritual journey of womanhood. Her latest music is especially nuanced. High As Hope sees Florence opening up about eating disorders, #MeToo, alcoholism, and family tragedy. “The End of Love,” about her grandmother who committed suicide, is the most striking and beautiful ballad of the year.
Barbra Streisand Walls
Let’s face it, the only reason Barbra Streisand’s latest album didn’t top many critic’s lists is her age. Which is not fair. Walls is defiantly traditional and will never compete with Drake et al on Spotify. But this album is brave: She had the chutzpah to write a song to Trump (“Don’t Lie to Me”). No other big star did that so blatantly this year. The cover tunes have power, too. Have you heard her voice on the Bacharach song, “What the World Needs Now”? Or Desmond Child’s “Lady Liberty”? Wowza. She’s 76, for God’s sake. She’s resurrected the 1929 hit parade with “Happy Days Are Here Again” in a new interpretation. It is ironic and triumphant, and ninety years of American pop culture flash by every time I hear it. And who could make another remake of Lennon’s “Imagine” even a tiny bit palatable? Babs has done it well as a medley with “What a Wonderful World,” in which she and we marvel at the history and future potential of the American dream. I wonder if there would be a similar flack to this album if Walls were written and sung by a male artist? Barbra cowrote some of the songs with her buddy Carole Bayer Sager; they created something really special here, yet the cover tunes deliver the political message as well or better than the originals. Barbra is attempting to heal the political divide by appealing to us with the Great American Songbook and the melodies we all have in common. Music is life. Brava, Barbra!
I also loved:
Brandi Carlile By the Way, I Forgive You Standout track: “Fulton County Jane”
Alessia Cara Growing Pains Standout track: “A Little More”
Courtney Barnett Tell Me How You Really Feel Standout track: “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence”
Missy Higgins Solastalgia Standout track: “49 Candles”
Jorga Smith Lost & Found Standout track: “On Your Own”
Innocence Mission Sun on the Square Standout track: “Records from Your Room”
Tori Kelly Hiding Place Standout track: “Psalm 42”
Ariana Grande Sweetener Standout track: “Breathin’”