We all process a year differently. That's why, as we wave goodbye to 2018, even though NPR Music has already published our collective lists of the best albums and songs of the year, we're sharing some favorites that are a little more personal. Below, instead of aiming for consensus, we've collected picks from many individual members of NPR Music's team — over 100 albums, songs, concerts, books, breakfasts and more — that warmed, widened, haunted or lit up our own little corners of the world.
In my job, I talk to a different musician pretty much every day. And regardless of age, genre, level of fame or politics, speak with any artist long enough and you'll likely find that what motivates people to make music is the desire to make connections. My favorite music changes all the time, and so my year-end list is a year-end wish. I hope you have found at least one piece of music that's made you feel more connected in 2018. And I hope you can find some way to tell the person who made that piece of music that they matter to you. You can send them a letter. You can tweet at them. You can buy a ticket to their upcoming concert. You can support the charity they founded. You can give their album to your aunt for Christmas. You can simply say their name in your apartment right now and quietly wish them well (Neko Case, thank you for helping me untangle some of my own yarns with the ones you spun this year). Musicians are helpers. Thanks to all the helpers.
When I look back on 2018, it won't be the music I loved but the music I found myself haunted by that will define the year for me. It's a reflection of how stark these times are — politically and culturally. So here are the 12 things — from albums to a range of performances — that shocked, stoked and unsettled my spirit in 2018.
1. Saba's eulogy of an album CARE FOR ME
2. Tierra Whack's afro-surreal visual escapade Whack World
3. Noname's absurdist Room 25 performance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert
4. Juice WRLD's depressing, drugged-out, teen break-up album Goodbye & Good Riddance
5. J. Cole's existentialist antidote to addiction, K.O.D.
6. Kanye's spineless appeal to the president in the Oval Office
7. Mac Miller's fated Tiny Desk performance of "2009"
8. Tekashi 6ix9ine's masterclass in trolling showcased on two Breakfast Club appearances
9. Leikeli47's unmasked choreopoem for colored girls, Acrylic
10. Royce Da 5'9"'s personal memoir of an LP, Book Of Ryan
11. Childish Gambino's visual apocalypse "This Is America"
12. Lonnie Holley's ghostly meditation on America's history of racial oppression, MITH
Two of the year's best albums told plain truths about love and survival with a sound that poked at the boundaries of country (Kacey Musgraves, Ashley McBryde), while two more brimmed over with radiant, floor-filling synth-pop (CHVRCHES, Pale Waves). One ruminated on death with stunning specificity, in the process bearing witness to a good life (Mount Eerie), while another offered tantalizing 60-second slivers of a major talent in progress (Tierra Whack). But give Lucy Dacus credit: She's the only one to snag bonus points for lending her voice to two of the year's best records.
1. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
2. Mount Eerie, Now Only
3. Mitski, Be The Cowboy
4. CHVRCHES, Love Is Dead
5. boygenius, boygenius EP + Lucy Dacus, Historian
6. Tierra Whack, Whack World
7. Ashley McBryde, Girl Going Nowhere
8. Laura Gibson, Goners
9. Pale Waves, My Mind Makes Noises
10. Low, Double Negative
Favorite thing: Bruce Springsteen, Springsteen on Broadway
Favorite song: The War and Treaty, "Love Like There's No Tomorrow"
Favorite live show: Brandi Carlile at WXPN, Philadelphia
Favorite Tiny Desk Performance: Daniel Caesar & H.E.R., "Best Part"
Favorite rediscovered album: Aretha Franklin, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism
Another favorite live show: Roy Hargrove at the Newport Jazz Festival
Favorite music book: Nate Chinen, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century
Favorite newly discovered Washington, D.C. music: The Jewels, "Opportunity"; The Young Senators, "Jungle"
Favorite cover: Stewart Francke, "This is Not America"
Yo-Yo Ma's Bach Marathon
Ma began playing Bach's Cello Suites at age 4 and never stopped. Now, nearly 60 years later this master musician – and master humanitarian – is touring the world with Bach's all-encompassing music. In the grand, reverberant National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Ma played all six suites, over two and a half hours, without intermission. It was akin to a ritual we all knew we'd never forget.
Maria Callas: The Hologram
The incomparable opera star has been dead since 1977, but she lives again – or does she? – in a new hologram tour that continues to puzzle me. Never having seen the real Callas, I was embarrassed to shed a tear at how present she seemed, even when her original recordings, doctored for the performance, sometimes sounded tinny and disembodied.
Danish String Quartet Gets Folksy
There's something about folk music – the songs and dances of ordinary people – that's burned deep in our DNA and flows out from our hearts. The players in the Danish String Quartet know this better than any classical ensemble today. On a cold, rainy night at a Washington, D.C. synagogue, they played old waltzes, minuets and polkas all from their Nordic homeland and all in their own brilliant, sometimes bittersweet, arrangements. The essence of hygge was palpable.
Joni Mitchell's Isle of Wight Intensity
Finally, we can experience Joni's explosive 1970 Isle of Wight concert in this arresting new documentary about the chaotic music festival. Here we can better understand how her notorious diatribe to the rowdy crowd fits into the raw, at times confident, at times vulnerable, and ultimately powerful performances from a master songwriter whose next album would be Blue.
Nils Frahm's Curious Pathways
The German musician could barely squeeze between the mountains of equipment filling every inch of Washington D.C.'s 9:30 Club stage. I counted at least six keyboards in various nooks. It was a journey of bliss and wonder making my way inside Frahm's thickets of retro synths and processed percussion only to poke through to exquisite vistas and forlorn piano solos – most of which came from the beguiling 2018 album, All Melody.
Salome in Deutschland
It's fashionable to sneer at Eurotrash opera productions, especially in Germany, but this complete rethinking of Richard Strauss' Salome was one that crackled with intelligence, and a riveting title role performance from soprano Annemarie Kremer. Director Mariame Clément, working at the Aalto Theatre in the northwestern city of Essen, turned the tables on the opera's traditional trappings: the over-sexed Salome who seduces and ultimately succumbs to the power of patriarchy. This was not an erotic showpiece. It was not a psycho-thriller. Instead, it was a portrait of a young woman rejecting the past, forging a powerful new path.
Every second of this album:
And this one:
It was another fantastic year for jazz in performance — and I caught a lot of it on the road, coast to coast. This Top 10 picks up the day after the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, about which I've already spilled plenty of words here. I'd relive any one of these gigs if I could.
John Abercrombie: Timeless: A Tribute to His Life and Music, Roulette, Brooklyn, March 26
John Abercrombie died in 2017, but his loss still felt deeply resonant at this convocation of his peers, including his fellow guitarists Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Nels Cline. I served as master of ceremonies, and I won't soon forget the beautiful spirit in the room.
Linda May Han Oh Quintet, Village Vanguard, NYC, April 18
Beyond her authority and dynamic presence as a bassist, Linda May Han Oh has become a first-rate bandleader and composer. This set — featuring tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Fabian Almazan and guitarist Matthew Stephens — landed like a depth charge.
Broken Shadows, Atlas Studios, Newburgh, N.Y., May 19
Alto saxophonist Tim Berne, tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King — an assemblage of unruly talent with a lot of combined mileage on the odometer. They played the music of Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman and Julius Hemphill, with gleeful, snarling force.
Michael Leonhart Orchestra, Jazz Standard, NYC, July 18
His most recent album, The Painted Lady Suite, is a quiet stunner. But trumpeter and composer Michael Leonhart wasn't all pastels and butterflies on this gig, which had Nels Cline as a featured guest. His ebullient flair felt more like the stuff of a confetti canon.
Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, Kris Davis, Detroit Jazz Festival, Aug. 31
Three reliably brilliant improvisers — respectively on drums, bass and vocals, and piano — gathered here to pay homage to Geri Allen, the Detroit-born pianist and composer who died last year at 60. Their interplay was inspired and inspiring, a fitting nod to her genius.
Mike Reed's 'The City Was Yellow: The Chicago Suite,' Hyde Park Jazz Festival, Chicago, Sept. 29
For this concert premiere, drummer Mike Reed put together a canon of compositions he considers to be Chicago jazz standards. Swirling colors, swinging rhythm: It was a beautiful study in grassroots scholarship, featuring some fantastic young musicians I hadn't heard before.
Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, Seattle, Nov. 1
Guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer J.T. Lewis make up the trio Harriet Tubman, which released a fantastically heavy album this year, The Terror End of Beauty. This Earshot Jazz Festival gig brought that music to life, with a dignified low-end churn.
Myra Melford's Snowy Egret, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, NYC, Nov. 7
The Other Side of Air, the latest album by this chamberesque ensemble, lands high on my year-end list — and not just because Melford, a pianist and composer, devised such a vivid set of ideas on the page. It's also due to the elegant combustion of this band, which was even clearer in person, with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Stomu Takeishi working the engine room.
Makaya McCraven, (Le) Poisson Rouge, NYC, Dec. 2
As a belated album-release celebration for Universal Beings, it might have resembled a victory lap. But this exuberant show, presented by Red Bull Music, was so much else besides: a vow of intent, an all-star throw-down, a dance party. More, please.
Esperanza Spalding, Town Hall, NYC, Dec. 12
In bringing her new album, 12 Little Spells, to the stage, Esperanza Spalding has thought a lot about physical presence: the way that the movement of limbs can define a space, the lasting impression of a silhouette. She does this while singing, in her effortless-seeming way, over the enlightened funk of a crackerjack band. Who else does this sort of thing? Who else could?
You probably don't need to be – or want to be – reminded of everything that happened in 2018 (but if you do, the 1975 wrote the definitive year-in-review). When you filter out the headlines and endless stream of push alerts, my past 12 months felt rather unremarkable, for which I'm grateful. I'm forever in search of what's new by nature, but in 2018, I settled in to stability, celebrating small successes where I found them.
In a year of high stakes, small moments stood out: The delight of hearing John Prine declare, "I'm gonna smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long." The clever compassion of illuminati hotties' "Patience." The sugary satisfaction of Ariana Grande's "sweetener." Restorations' empathetic rendering of 2018's omnipresent anxiety. Foxing's defeated decree, "I feel like a houseplant."
In alphabetical order by artist, here are my favorite albums of 2018:
· Ariana Grande, sweetener
· Foxing, Nearer My God
· Hop Along, Bark Your Head Off, Dog
· illuminati hotties, Kiss Yr Frenemies
· John Prine, The Tree of Forgiveness
· Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
· Now, Now, Saved
· Restorations, LP5000
· Snail Mail, Lush
· The 1975, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
When I reflect on the best live performances I saw this year, I lean into the extremes: the biggest crowds, the wildest costumes, the most perfect line-ups. For me, these shows were often an escape from a fraught year, and it felt good to disappear into the bold, bright alternate reality artists created on stage — even when their doing so helped me confront life's uglier truths. These five concerts (including the first one, which isn't exactly a concert) are shows I'll keep in mind well past the end of this year.
Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged) at The Kennedy Center, March 6
The abridged version of the performance artist's 24-hour show, which chronicles 24 decades of American history, felt radical, queer and finely tuned to how our current political moment fits into the complicated story of America. (And oh my goodness, the costumes!)
Fever Ray at 9:30 Club, May 14
Karin Dreijer brought odes to queer liberation, a menagerie of campy superheroines and all her righteous, kinky glory to the tour behind 2017's Plunge, turning any space she entered into one of disarmingly freaky, frankly sexual and radically feminist joy.
Hop Along at 9:30 Club, June 5
Bark Your Head Off, Dog was my favorite album of 2018; I lost my voice three songs in.
Harry Styles (and Kacey Musgraves) at Capital One Arena, June 24
There is little in this world that prepares you to hear the roar of roughly 20,000 fans — the overwhelming majority of them teen girls — upon seeing Harry Styles step onstage. Yet somehow, he (and Kacey Musgraves, a human disco ball made of pop-country charm) lived up to the hype.
Courtney Barnett/Julien Baker/Vagabon at The Anthem, July 24
Courtney Barnett's headlining set was marvelous, but I was even more excited to see the two opening acts — of whom I've long been a fan — get a chance to play such a large room. Laetitia Tamko and Julien Baker both filled the space with the urgency of their intimate songwriting.
Honorable Mention: The 12th Annual DC Halloween Cover Benefit Show, The Pinch
If I can offer one piece of advice from my experiences in 2018 that you can carry into 2019, it would be: Join a Carly Rae Jepsen cover band. It holds the potential to bring you immense joy and, if the crowd at The Pinch that night was to be believed, bring an unfathomable amount of happiness into the lives of your loved ones.
Some measure out their life with coffee spoons; I measure mine in eggs. For the last six or seven years, I've made a weekend ritual out of making big breakfasts while listening to records. #WAXnEGGS, as it is hashtagged on Instagram, even briefly became a live cooking show, and remains a way to mind some grits while sipping tea, flipping vinyl and chatting with friends and family. Here's a baker's dozen of my favorite meals and memories of 2018 (first link goes to the final outcome on Instagram, second to where you can stream my soundtrack for the meal), in chronological order.
· Toasted wheat bagel (one side with peanut butter, bacon & fig jam; the other w/ cream cheese, hot pepper jelly & mango); green grapes; pork sage sausage; First Grade Keemun black tea; Clint Heidorn- Pasadena
· Salteña, fruit salad, cheesy scrambled eggs, genmaicha tea, Maximum Joy- I Can't Stand It Here On Quiet Nights
· Coconut milk waffles, huevos rancheros-style; sautéed shallots & asparagus; Formosa oolong tea; Ben LaMar Gay- Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun
· Quiche with sautéed onion & red bell pepper, arugula, Parmesan; avocado; soysauge; Akbar rich soursop tea; v/a- I've Got the Bible Belt Around My Throat: A One-Sided History of Punk Rock and Hardcore from Alabama 1981-2003
· #WAXnEGGS, expanded edition featuring Erin Rae and Positive No, biscuits, eggs shakshuka, two buttermilk pies, several pots of coffee and tea, Nikki Sudden & The French Revolution- Groove.
· Cheese grits with smoked Brussels sprout & onion leftover from Thanksgiving, lacey egg; unmarked oolong tea from Oakland; Leon Thomas- In Berlin
· The folks at Resonance Records are a jazz archivist's dream. The detail and devotion they have put into the releases of historic or lost recordings by pianist Bill Evans, guitarist Wes Montgomery and Grant Green over the past few years has created a growing Resonance section in my vinyl collection. This year's batch included more Green and a stunning release of mid-1960's live dates from a quintet led by Julian "Cannonball" Adderley as well as a gorgeous 1972 live date featuring vocalist Etta Jones with the Cedar Walton Trio (Sam Jones on bass, Billy Higgins on drums!).
· A very quiet but significant release of a Latin music band finally got its place in the sun this year. God's Children was formed in 1969 by a group of Chicano musicians in Southern California who based their sound on the organic affinity many Chicanos had (and still have) for early R&B. With emphasis on the soulful vocals of Lydia Amezcua and Little Willie G, formerly of Thee Midniters, east L.A.'s rock and roll heroes before Los Lobos, the band attained mythical status among fans of Chicano music. Its releases were pretty much unavailable until Minky Records dedicated time and resources to tell a story that was missing from history of contemporary popular music. Music Is The Answer: The Complete Collection by God's Children was released with little fanfare, but the influence is felt anyway: Kali Uchis' 2018 album Isolation was the just latest example of a bicultural expression that can be traced back to God's Children and countless neighborhood wedding and quinceañera bands throughout the Southwest.
· Yet another expression of black and brown soul power that caught my ear and heart was Nacional Records' Look At My Soul: The Latin Shade of Texas Soul. Austin-based, Grammy-winning musician/producer/chingon Adrian Quezada had been sitting on this idea for almost a decade after hearing stories from Texas soul veteranos about old school Tejano soul. Quezada wrote a couple of originals alongside lost gems like "Boogaloo En Monterey" by the underappreciated Latino music pioneer Freddy Fender and released through Amazon Music along with a coveted vinyl release.
· And I wouldn't be worth my salt as a true Deadhead if I didn't express appreciation for a very special, short tour by a trio that billed itself as Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers (the Wolf brothers were famed producer/label exec/bass player Don Was and former Ratdog drummer Jay Lane). More than gigs by the much larger Dead and Company, this group put the spotlight directly on the things that made and continue to make Bob Weir a one of a kind part of music history. Bobby developed his particular style of playing rhythm guitar behind Jerry Garcia and was the exhale to Jerry's inhale. In this trio setting, those unorthodox rhythm chops were on full display — to be honest, it didn't even matter that there was no lead guitar.
The set list included Grateful Dead gems alongside songs from his 2016 solo acoustic release Blue Mountain. The sparse trio setting was a declaration that at age 71, Bob Weir has an untapped mine of creativity inside of him yet. And for folks like me whose age now has a '6' in front, it was reminder that age is just a number and it's what we do with all those years that make the difference.
Most gratifying, unexpected surprise: the issue, after more than 45 years, of the superb Aretha Franklin film documentary Amazing Grace
Best new-to-me-artist: Spanish singer Rosalía and her sexy, sleek album El Mal Querer
Best flashback moment: Via the 2018 album release of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, to the work's 2008 staging at the Metropolitan Opera (Gerald Finley! "Batter My Heart"!)
Most meaningful YouTube experience: watching John Luther Adams' Inuksuit being performed by musicians on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border
Best 2018 summer jam: Aya Nakamura's "Djadja"
Most re-watched and deeply contemplated video: Childish Gambino's "This Is America"
Most present reminder of the sheer physicality of classical music: Daniil Trifonov's May recital at Zankel Hall, with music by Berg, Prokofiev, Bartok, Copland, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Adams and Corigliano
Favorite Broadway show I saw in 2018: Springsteen on Broadway
Best album of 2018: Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer
Most moving, personally transformative experience: reporting from Aretha Franklin's funeral in Detroit
Burning Down the Haus
Tim Mohr's richly reported book, a chronicle of punk's germination and rise to primacy within the former East Germany, was and remains both a fascinating history and timely parable. Burning Down the Haus confronts you with some important questions: Do you have the capacity to recognize when things are already really, really bad? And would you have the courage to do something about it?
Liz Pelly on Spotify
Every three months or so over the past year, journalist Liz Pelly has dropped a fascinating investigative piece for The Baffler — four out of five took Spotify as their subject. Pelly's investigations are sober and procedural, teasing apart the mechanisms and strategies that are quickly making our world into a singles-and-playlists-driven one. But that work sets up the series' more central purpose, which is to question whether what we're acquiescing to is a net positive or just the path of least resistance. Resisting that path, I suspect, is her central motivation. "I want to believe that it's not too late to beat the billionaires and the bots," she writes at the conclusion of her first piece.
Jlin @ CTM Festival
At a show titled "Designed Disarray," which took place in January during the outre Berlin electronic music festival CTM, the artist Jerrilynn Patton, better known as Jlin, gave a performance that was... perfect. This is something that practically never happens because, like any relationship, so many things need to be in alignment for it to get there; the mindset of the performer, of the audience, the sound system, the city. Jlin delivered a set as precise and technically proficient as it was personal and soul-illuminating, building and shattering expectations minute by minute in a swaying field of wide eyes.
Anything For a Hit
In her autobiography, Dorothy Carvello confirms our worst assumptions about what it was like — as a human being, but particularly as one that happens to be a woman — to try, while the major labels' financial and cultural hegemony were at their apex, and carve a life out of the business of music. Backstabbing, brinkmanship, petty territorial disputes, exploitation and illegality were expected, of course — but so was sexual, physical and psychological abuse. As depicted here, Ahmet Ertegun, the celebrated co-founder of Atlantic Records and Carvello's first boss in the industry, was an almost-tragic demon. He was, and remains, far from alone.
My headphone jack
After a bike crash, I needed to buy a new mobile device. But to continue having the privilege of listening to music, I've also had to buy five dongles — a gross word that means "something annoying that comes between you and everything you care about" — over the past year, at a cost of $10 each. (The price alone feels exquisitely calibrated to leave you just shy of refusal.) Besides the fact that these dongles like to fail at laughably inopportune times — like at the beginning of a flight, for example — what they really underscore is the frustration we're inviting into our lives by ceding control of basic technological functions in the interest of progress. What's progress, if my Walkman worked better than my smartphone?
Richard Serra and Philip Glass' friendship
To create his book Conversations About Sculpture, the brilliant art critic Hal Foster conducted a series of nuanced discussions with the sculptor Richard Serra, best known for his massive steel constructions. While the book is an attempt — a successful one — to precisely document Serra's artistic development, its beginning, which covers the late '60s through the early '70s, features several appearances from Philip Glass, a close friend of Serra's who often helped him haul discarded industrial supplies from Manhattan streets into his studio. (Glass semi-recently performed inside one of his pieces.) The cross-pollination between these two very different artists, in a New York scene that was fat with artistic transcendence, presented a valuable reminder that nothing, artistic or otherwise, occurs discrete from the things around it.
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