Article

The 10 Best Roots Music Records of 2018 So Far

Last month we polled our staffers and regular album reviewers on their favorite records of the year so far. It’s never an easy question, and always a subjective one. Among our voters, only 10 records received multiple votes with the No. 1 artist taking her crown by a wide margin (hence why the entries are alphabetized after hers). But nearly 40 other albums received votes, showcasing the breadth of roots music released so far, and the range of preferences from our writers and readers.

Check out No Depression’s mid-year favorites below, with links atop each one to the complete album reviews.

Voters include John Amen, Grant Britt, Henry Carrigan, Stacy Chandler, Maeri Ferguson, Corbie Hill, Adam Kirr, Sonja Nelson, Amos Perrine, and Hilary Saunders.

1. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

On Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves lives in that space, for these songs focus on relationships — brokenness, longing, regret, joy, sadness, bliss, strength, hope — and the inextricable threads that bind us to others. Yet, the record radiates with beauty and love; its glorious sheen imbues the world around it with a sparkling message to embrace wonder, revel in love, and to hold onto transitory moments of beauty that settle on or near you. — Henry Carrigan

2. Beth Nielsen Chapman, Hearts of Glass

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s new album Hearts of Glass couldn’t have a better title, for glass reflects our innermost hopes and desires as well as the destructive and redemptive images of ourselves, and at the same times glass shatters into millions of tiny uneven pieces just as our hearts can shatter when dreams, hopes, or love are dashed. On her first album since her 2016 induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Chapman includes several new compositions, but also revisits and refreshes some of her earlier songs, and contains two early songs recorded by Waylon Jennings (“Old Church Hymns & Nursery Rhymes”) and Willie Nelson (“If My World Didn’t Have You”). But the sonic starkness of these songs creates a palpable sense of the madly constricting and liberating emotional moments of love, rage, and hope. Chapman’s songs carry us through the moments when we’re most vulnerable in order to discover the resilience our bodies and souls and hearts call upon to survive and thrive. — Henry Carrigan

3. Mary Gauthier, Rifles & Rosary Beads

On her aptly titled new album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, Mary Gauthier gathers 11 songs that she co-wrote over the last four years with wounded veterans in the SongwritingWith: Soldiers retreats. These songs not only name the things that these soldiers carried and continue to carry, but also provide vessels for naming and transforming the trauma they carry. Rifles & Rosary Beads gives veterans and their spouses a voice, a chance to find in song the words that foster growth in the midst of trauma. The songs give the veterans an opportunity to name the things they continue to carry with them once the wars are done, recognizing that the wars within them are never finished. Gauthier and her co-writers deliver an album of songs that momentarily make the burdens of these men and women lighter, for in these songs they’ve found the care and empathy of a listening stranger who doesn't sit in judgment but rather embraces in love. — Henry Carrigan

4. Gretchen Peters, Dancing with the Beast

Each tune on Gretchen Peters’ new album is written from the perspective of a different woman, and each tune goes deep into its subject's psyche. One woman is at the end of her life, looking back with dissatisfaction, one is a sex worker at a truck stop, one is a teenager disturbed and confused after being taken advantage of by a boy from out of town, one takes a dissatisfied look at her cookie-cutter life and memorably admits "I get lost in my hometown." Dancing With the Beast is an album of incredible humanity and depth, and listening to it requires the same mental engagement and emotional investment as reading a short story collection. As such, Dancing With the Beast can be a tough listen. Yet on days when your spirit is properly attuned to the everyday struggles, tragedies, and moments of grace her 11 women experience, this record's an immersive, rewarding listen. — Corbie Hill

5. Pharis & Jason Romero, Sweet Old Religion

What pours out on Sweet Old Religion isn’t anger or sadness or exhaustion, though surely the duo experienced all of that and more in the last few years: They welcomed their second child, tore down and built a new house, and watched their work on custom banjos go crashing off course when a fire burned down the workshop. What pervades this record is gratitude. Joy. Celebration. And appreciation for the stuff in life that isn’t stuff at all. Where previous Romero records have been a mix of standout originals and obscure folk gems dug out from past eras, Sweet Old Religion’s 11 songs are all penned by the Romeros, though even these new tunes are tinged with tones from long ago. — Stacy Chandler

6. Caroline Rose, Loner
It’s been a long, strange journey for Caroline Rose, but she is finally making the music she’s been longing to make for years. A proven natural when it comes to that rootsy, Americana sound, her back-to-back debuts America Religious and I Will Not Be Afraid showed her ability to master a genre that ultimately was not where her passion lie and wasn’t where she belonged. And though the songs she created during that time are beautiful and honest, Rose is living her truth on her new record, Loner. — Maeri Ferguson

7. Peter Rowan, Carter Stanley's Eyes

Peter Rowan can document his lineage all the way back to Bill Monroe, who hired him as a Blue Grass Boy in the early 1960s. In addition to employment and teaching, Monroe introduced Rowan to Carter Stanley, whose voice and songs provided Rowan a second foundational stone. That 1965 meeting is the subject of this album’s title song, and from the awakening essayed in the song’s spoken verses, it’s clear that that personal connection informed everything Rowan has done ever since. — Hyperbolium

8. Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, Years

Sarah Shook’s musical influences are obvious as her angsty lyrics are set into a classic country rubric complete with pedal steel and a touch of alt-country via the electric guitar. The songs are short and punchy, three to four-minute pieces that would fit into the Opry without question, though painted in darker shades than even Hank managed to pull from his palate before he got his ass fired. It’s like Lucinda Williams backed up Waymore’s Outlaws, with Lu still looking under rocks for her joy. And it’s this combination of bounding, high-spirited music with Shook’s bleak outlook and often flat-voiced delivery that makes these songs on Years so compelling. Jason D. "Diesel" Hamad 

9. Luke Winslow-King, Blue Mesa

Luke Winslow-King may have left New Orleans behind, but his new record Blue Mesa may be his most NOLA-inflected work yet. Following 2016’s dark and brooding I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last AlwaysBlue Mesa finds Winslow-King in a different place than he was during the creation of Trouble. In fact, Blue Mesa serves as a kind of road map of where he’s been in his life — the places that raised him musically and all the incredible art he’s been exposed to since his early days as a musician. It has the old-fashioned ragtag New Orleans sound on songs like “You’ve Got Mine” (a collaboration with “Washboard” Lissa Driscoll) and the swaggering party “Leghorn Women.” The bluesy influence of his Northern Michigan roots comes through on the wistful “Better for Knowing You.” The boisterous “Chicken Dinner” is a hybrid with its repetitive verses and perfectly choreographed horns. It’s playful and celebratory and makes you feel better for having listened to it. — Maeri Ferguson

10. The Wood Brothers, One Drop of Truth

The Wood Brothers insist that their latest release is their purest. That might be true in terms of brotherly togetherness, but the sound is still the same eclectic mix of funk, country, roots rock, and blues that brother Oliver has been dishing up since his King Johnson days. Utilizing several studios in Nashville and four engineers, the band's sixth studio album is all over the place thematically, but still remains firmly anchored in the Woods' country-funk-bloozey backyard. — Grant Britt

Good stuff in general but "Bikini" would fit better on the Dr. Demento Show rather than No Depression.   

Hilary obviously didn't get a chance to hear Sunshiner (The Mammals), Lord of The Desert (3hattrio) or Sam Reider's Too Hot To Sleep - a lot of folks on this side of the Atlantic would probably have those included in their Top Ten (of 2018 so far)...

Shocked to say that I have 5 of the 10 records in question, and I figured I was hopelessly out of touch...The Wood Brothers is great (doo yourself a favor and see them live) and so is Gretchen Peters and Beth Neilsen Chapman...Kasey Musgraves and Mary Gautheir are excellent too...

I like the Luke Winslow King tune too...I'll have to make it 6...I didn't dislike "Bikini" at all, but I'd agree with the real Mutt, it felt a little novelty-ish to me as well...

One man's novelty is another man's homage to Ed Grimley.

I believe I will accompany Coldplay on the triangle now...

Some years my lists (somewhat) line-up with NoDep's, some years they don't - - this is a mostly "don't" half-year.  I went 25 albums deep (10 ranked; 15 unranked) but matched only a few.  I had Sarah Shook at #4; Kacey Musgraves at #9; and Luke Winslow-King as an unranked.  Fwiw, I had Ike Reilly's 'Crooked Love'; the Dave Alvin/Jimmie Dale Gilmore collab'n; and 6 String Drag's latest, as my #1, 2, & 3.  But I still enjoy perusing NoDep's lists after all these years for music I've missed or overlooked.

 The American Aquarium release "Things Change" is one the would have made my list.  Michael McDermott's "Out From Under" is another. But who asked me?  I've often found the best recs come from fellow music fans.

The American Aquarium also made my list, but mostly replying to say "Thanks!" for the heads-up on the new Michael McDermott release - - his 'Willow Springs' album made my faves of 2016 year-end list, but I had entirely missed his new one, an oversight I'll correct asap.

It's different than "Willow Springs", but he's a real talent...I've bought all of his stuff since hearing "Willow Springs" and there's no bad record in the bunch, even when he was heavily medicated...he's got a side project called The Westies that is killer stuff too..."West Side Stories" , from 2015, and "6 On the Out" from 2016...love both records...

Those are both great records, as is the 6 String Drag that Garry mentioned...I just got the American Aquarium and it's very good...the McDermott is terrific...it definitely would be near the top for me...but I am biased when it comes to him as you know...I was surprised to find so many on this list I actually had heard...

I too am more likely to take a rec from a music fan...

Garry, you should thank Jim for the McDermott mention. That guy twisted my arm every chance he could to get me to buy "Willow Springs". When I finally did I knew why he proselytized for McDermott with such zeal. I'm a convert and I've picked up his recent disc and most of his back catalog.

Regarding music recs from fans.  I've been burned by "critics" more than once. "Trout Mask Replica" anyone?  Which makes the rumors so sad that the revamped No Depression site will kill all community discussions/comments which of course includes invaluable random music recs!

Well, then "Thanks" to Jim, too.  And since we're doing some plugging, I've got to think that fans of McDermott should at least check out Ike Reilly if you haven't already.  His 2018 'Crooked Love' is number one so far for me this year, and his 'Hard Luck Stories' from 2009/2010 is even better.  If you take McDermott and amp him up with some electric Dylan and a shot punk-rock, you'd get Reilly because he mines similar territory lyrically.  Anyway, my two cents.

Ike and McDermott actually play together once in a while as I've seen some video of them together...Jack 11.0 is a big touter of Ike as well...I will pick some up and let you know what I think when I get it...

As for McDermott, my arm twisting bordered on abuse...it's a good thing people did like it or I'd have zero credibility at this point...

Yep, another good one that I know of due to Jack 11.0.  Another good one is Kevn Gordon. He's got a new disc "Tilt And Shine" that I predict will be on many Americana music fans' end of year lists (and maybe even a few critics' lists too)!

 

 

What Mr. Mutt...Dom VanVliet did not strike your fancy?  Me neither...dissonant music and a bad voice..."Trout Mask" didn't work for me and I tried, as I had heard it linked with the Mothers of Invention, which I did like find intersting, musical, and hilarious...Trout Mask...I did not find it musical personally...Captain Beefheart did not sell many records...I suspect that his genius escaped most listeners...

Ike Reilly and Michael McDermott are local Chicago guys. Somehow McDermott escaped me until Jim Hunter subtley, infrequently, almost bashfully recommended Willow Springs, a terrific record. Saw McDermott live a few months ago, really good show. I’ve bought various of his previous records including the Westies and his new one, Out From Under, is excellent. Just saw Ike Reilly play again, a real treat, he’s a guy who when people say rock is dead disproves their point. I noticed Jim mentioning they sometimes play together, I hope s0, it’d be a great pairing. Good to see Mutt mention Kevin Gordon’s Tilt and Shine, that’s the one atop my list so far. 

 

And if we can talk about great songs from this year so far, sign me up for When I Get To Heaven, the last song on John Prine’s Tree of Forgiveness, a record that will be high on my list for this year.

Bashful...that's me definitely....Here's Ike and Mike at Old Town School of Folk...

https://youtu.be/V2JJg-96utA

And that's exactly why I billed them "Ike and Mike"...it was Ike's gig too...

Love those, but they get stuck in your teeth...

I'm another convert to Michael McDermott and re-discovered him about the same time as Jim did and now have most of his back catalog. The Westies' "West Side Stories" just may be his best album but they are all excellent and "Out From Under" should be on any "best of the year so far" list. I'd also include Bettye LaVette's "Things Have Changed," The Dave Alvin/Jimmie Dale Gilmore collaboration, Rita Coolidge's "Safe in the Arms of Time" and although I just got it and haven't heard it I suspect Jimmy LaFave's posthumous release "Peace Town" is deserving also.

Fan recs! Remember those wacky days when NoDepression had a reader's poll. I always found my taste aligned with that poll rather than the critics. I always assumed the critics reviewed what they received while fans actively searched out what they listened to.

 

FYI-Kevin Gordon has a new album "Tilt And Shine".

Bought it and two by Ike Reilly today...

I'm not as immediately taken with the new Kevin Gordon as some, but I'll keep listening.

Follow up...the Jimmy LaFave is great...it's a double...I listened to the first CD and some of the second last night...I am sick (summer cold) and I had to get some sleep, but every song was a keeper that I heard...I didn't listen as close as I'd like and I can't hear worth a damn even when I don't have a cold, but my impression so far is it is his best studio record...

The Bettye LaVette is really good too...

I assume I wasn’t asked to vote because they all know how much I hate ‘best of’ lists (as opposed to the more artist-friendly ‘favorites’) or Hilary has yet to discover that I’m on the payroll. So let’s keep that quiet. (Sort of like on Seinfeld when Kramer went to an office to use the bathroom and someone grabbed him for a meeting. Next thing you know, he starts showing up to work everyday. That’s me.)

A few surprising omissions: the aforementioned Alvin/Gilmore album, the new Jayhawks, Molly Tuttle, The Rails, Lera Lynn, Milk Carton Kids (!!!!!) and Modern Mal. All current faves for me.  

The Jayhawks new album was released in mid-July, so it didn't make my mid-year "so far" list, which kept things to Jan-June.  But the Jayhawks WILL be on my year-end list.

Your secret is safe with us/me Ed...

I haven't heard the Jayhawks yet...I plan to buy it, but I haven't so far...I like at least one song on every release they have and almost all of a couple of their releases...I like the Milk Carton Kids too, and have seen them live, but I don't have theirs either...so much music...

KRAMER

What did you want to see me about, Mr. Leland?

LELAND

Kramer, I've.. been reviewing your work.. Quite frankly, it stinks.

KRAMER

Well, I ah.. been havin' trouble at home and uh.. I mean, ah, you know, I'll work harder, nights, weekends, whatever it takes..

LELAND

No, no, I don't think that's going to, do it, uh. These reports you handed in. It's almost as if you have no business training at all..

I don't know what this is supposed to be!

KRAMER

Well, I'm uh, just--tryin' to get ahead..

LELAND

Well, I'm sorry. There's just no way that we could keep you on.

KRAMER

I don't even really work here!

LELAND

That's what makes this so difficult.

Therin lies the problem Mutt...Ed can write and has consistently compelling ideas...so he's less conspicuous at ND than Kramer eventually became...or maybe he's more conspicuous...something...

Think I will just bow out quietly now...good night all...

 

My posting of the Seindfeld dialogue clearly does not reflect my thoughts on EasyEd's skills to both write and entertain!  But I am amazed that Hilary has never contacted EasyEd at any time during her reign as editor!  

Hilary has her hands full with the print journal, and I although I mentioned my lack of contact with her, it's really no big deal. I communicate several times each week with Stacy. If there is a need or occasion to be further No Depression-ized, I reach out to Kyla, Peter, Grant or Kim. Frankly, I sort of like being left alone. So....shhhhh. 

I’m out Ed...I promise...bedtime...and Stacy is cool... I’ve spoken with her before...nice person who does lots behind the scenes...and for what it's worth, the last  print edition was pretty decent

Rod Picott's "Out Past The Wires" warrants a mention.Here's a song he wrote with Slaid Cleaves.

I've got a couple of records by him...he's good...

Have bought 2 out of the 10 - Mary's and Sarah's. Might try The Wood Brothers. Have some of Luke's - like his early ones. Know about Gretchen, Kacey and Beth, but have never bought any of their music. Have bought 28 2018 albums so far, and my top ten in no particular order would be:

Amy Rigby - The Old Guys (maybe her best)

Coco O'Connor - This Ol' War

Courtney Marie Andrews - May Your Kindness Remain

Eb and Sparrow - Seeing Things (New Zealand)

Emily Fairlight - Mother of Gloom (New Zealand)

Gwenifer Raymond - You Never Were Much of a Dancer (Welsh multi-instrumentalist)

Holly Arrowsmith - A Dawn I Remember (New Zealand) 

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams - Vanished Gardens

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers - Years

Sue Foley - The Ice Queen

 

A record not mentioned here but one that invariably prompts friends to ask “who’s that playing” is Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. The record came out earlier this year. This is of an older tune included on the record. A simple, catchy tune. The whole record is pretty catchy.

 

Great live act...and that is a good record...