Saturday, January 4, 2020

Rock Music XXI: The Best Albums of 2019

It's the end of a decade and I am presenting my 9th annual "15 Favorite Albums" of the year. I started this in 2011 and have continued every year since. In the next month or so I will post my 15 or maybe 20 favorite albums of the decade 2010 - 2019.

As always my best of list contains a diverse variation of musical genres including jazz, blues, rock, electronic, experimental, country and Americana. 

Scroll to the end of this blog post to see the links to my "Best Albums" posts from 2011 to 2018.

15. "What A Wonderful Industry" by M. Ward

I have long been a fan of Ward's lofi Alt-Country, indie folk sound. "What A Wonderful Industry" finds Ward dipping more into alt-rock guitar with "Sit Around The House" and "Return To Neptune" and hints of surf guitar in "Shark" and "Motorcycle Ride."

"Miracle Man" by M. Ward (2019)

14. "Help Us Stranger" by The Raconteurs

One name stands out here and that is of course Jack White. He is the star of the band. His distinctive voice is prominent throughout the album as well as his recognizable guitar work. But let's be certain Raconteurs is not a one-person show. Brendan Benson's contribution to this spotless garage rock album is just as important as White's. Benson's co-wrote all the songs with White (with the exception of the Donovan song). However much of the album does move like a followup to Jack White's 2018 masterpiece "Boarding House Reach," especially in the White's use of electronics and synthesizers and Vance Powell's and Joshua V. Smith's work in engineering and mixing both albums. 

"Help Me Stranger" by Raconteurs (2019)

13. "Ride Me Back Home" by Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson presents his special blend of jazz infused country music. 2019 finds Nelson in top form and sounds better than ever with a supporting band that suits his voice perfectly.

Willie treats us to his dry humor with "Seven Year Itch" while he and his sons Micah and Lukas join him on a great cover of Mac Davis.

"Seven Year Itch" by Willie Nelson (2019)

12. "Inoculum" by TOOL
Link to "Fear Inoculum" (Click Here)

It was a long 13 year wait for this fifth studio album from Tool. It was well worth the wait. This album contains all the elements with love about Tool. The depth of musicianship - which borders on ethereal, experimental, progressive and all out rocking, intense dark lyrics and the intricate guitar work.

"Fear Inoculum" by TOOL (2019)

11. "This Land" by Gary Clark Jr.
Link to "This Land" (Click Here)

What captured me regarding this album is Gary Clark Jr's fearless ability to speak up on what he believes and has experienced in his life. 

In the title track Clark clearly speaks out on racism in the United States as he poignantly sings, "This is where I come from. This land is mine." Clark continues this theme throughout the album calling out the plight of a government that works for some but not all. Thematically this is a tough album that is heavy with Clark's viewpoints shaped from his life experiences.

Beyond the lyrical themes of the album, the musicianship is tihht and Gary Clark Jr's guitar work once again proves he is amongst today's finest and most exciting guitarists.

One of the highlights of the album is the inclusion of Sheila E on drums. She plays on 6 of the 15 tracks. 

"This Land" by Gary Clark, Jr.

10. "Steamy!" by The Jukka Eskola Soul Trio 
Link to "Steamy!" (Click Here)

This was one of the most exciting albums of 2019. This Finnish trio delivers an eight cut explosion of soulful and progressive jazz numbers with a heavy influence of 1960’s and 70’s aesthetic that tilts on the experimental side on occasion.

"Hanky Panky" by The Jukka Eskola Soul Trio (2019)

#jukkaeskola #steamy! #exciting

9. "Africa Speaks" by Santana 
Link to "Africa Speaks" (Click Here)

Carlos Santana and his band have been on a roll for the past 20 years. In 1999 he made a huge come back with his classic album "Supernatural," which has sold more than 30 million copies around the world. "Africa Speaks" follows suit reaching #3 in the US and Top 20 throughout the world.

"Africa Speaks" incorporates tribal rhythms and African choral vocals. Spanish singer Buika provided the lead vocals and co-wrote all the songs. 

8. "Oklahoma" by Keb' Mo'
Link to "Oklahoma" (Click Here)

From the beginning of his career blues man Keb' Mo' has consistently released quality music filled with great vicals, guitars and insightful lyrics. "Oklahoma" follows that trend of great music. The album includes guest appearnces by Rosanne Cash and Taj Mahal. Mo' touches on his views on immigration and other current day political issues. (Take a good close look at the album cover - Keb included many of the things that are important to him)

"Oklahoma" by Keb' Mo' (2019)

7. "A Tuba To Cuba" by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Link to "A Tuba To Cuba" (Click Here)

"A Tuba To Cuba" is the soundtrack from the documentary of the same name. The film follows the Preservation Jazz Hall Band's leader Ben Jaffe as he worked to retrace the connection of New Orleans jazz to indigenous Cuban music, which was a dream of his late father, Preservation Hall founder Allan Jaffe. 
“A Tuba To Cuba” is the identity of great jazz music in the modern age.

"Keep Your Head Up" by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band (2019)

6. "Sound & Fury" by Sturgill Simpson
Link to "Sound and Fury" (Click Here)

Country music rebel, Sturgill Simpson, shook off his cowboy hat and country twang in favor of an edgy alt-rock essence with crisp guitar chords, sharp drum rhytms and synth vibes. Simpson has produced another winnig album.

Link to “Sound & Fury” by Sturgill Simpson: 

The album was released along with an original Netflix dystopian anime film titled "Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound and Fury," written and produced by Simpson with Japanese director Junpei Mizusaki of the animation studio Kamikaze.

"Sing Along" by Sturgill Simpson (2019)

5. "Drift Series 1 Sampler" by Underworld
Link to "Drift Series 1 Sampler Edition" (Click Here)

This release is a sampler of a much larger work spanning 6 unique discs recorded and originally released in 2018 and 2019. 

Each track is beautifully produced with a discernible intention toward the arrangement of electronic layers to establish powerful, thematic settings.

Each song is layered with danceable beats, ambient moods and creative artistry designed to pull the listener in to listen to this entire sampler from start to finish.

Just as compelling as the music are the music videos. Each music video contains images that thrill as well as tell a story of each song.

"Listen To Their No" by Underworld (2019)

4. "Rammstein" by Rammstein
Link to "Rammstein" (2019)

Fans waited ten long years for this album. Are we disappointed? Not in the least. They're back with hard rock guitars, grinding industrial synths and pounding drums. Let's hope the next one doesn't take 10 years.

"Radio" by Rammstein (2019)


3. "Plastic Anniversary" by Matmos
Link to “Plastic Anniversary” (Click Here)

This gets the tags of most original and most creative album of 2019. 

The interesting fact of this album is the that all the sound originates from plastic objects. The album is intended to explore our relationship to plastic and how its qualities of "durability, portability, and longevity" are both useful for humans and harmful to the environment.

The plastic objects used as instruments include vinyl fragments, exercise ball, ATM card, DNA kit, pelican cases, plastic containers, billiard balls, bakelite dominoes, salad bowl, plastic flutes, PVC panflute, poker chips, riot shield, nurdles, toilet brushes, PVC pipes, LEGO bricks, whistles, plastic gloves, packing tape, plastic emergency stretcher and various plastic objects. The most interesting object is a silicone gel breast implant used in the song, "Silicone Gel Implant."

The songs are all mixed and augmented with synthesized sounds and electronic sequencing and sampling.. 

The album is playful and experimentally poppy while conveying a very serious message on the darker implications of ignoring the havoc we are imposing on the earth all for the sake of convenience.

"Silicone Gel Implant" by Matmos (2019)

#mostoriginal #most creative #original #creative #matmos

2. "South of Reality" by The Claypool Lennon Delirium
Link to "South Of Reality" (Click Here)

There's a lot of connections here which make this album appealing to a wide range of people. There are connections to the Beatles, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Primus, Les Claypool, Cake and to a lesser degree Pink Floyd. Beyond these stellar connections it is the music first and foremost that propels this unit.

Sean Lennon and Les Claypool teamed again for their second album and gifted us with an album that far surpasses their debut album. That was a tall order to fill as their first album was above and beyond exceptional. 

Sean Ono Lennon's influence is quite a bit more prevalent on this album which gives it more of a Beatlesque feel than their debut. Both Sean Lennon and Les Claypool produced the album, wrote all the songs and played several of the instruments.

The album makes good use of humor - not so much in a silly manner - but in a dark and dry manner. But to be certain they also touch on some important topics such as the levels of mercury found in fish and in the oceans of the world which makes its way into the stomachs and bodies of human beings. I will be so bold as to call this album a work of genius. 

Those that have asked, "is possible for the offspring of a Beatle to produce an album as good as a Beatles album?" My answer is yes and Sean Lennon (with Les Claypool) has succeeded in accomplishing this.

"Love and Rockets/Saga of Jack/Too The Moon" by Claypool Lennon Delirium (2019)

1. "12 Little Spells" by Esperanza Spalding
Link to “12 Little Spells” (Click Here)

This is the second time Esperanza Spalding has topped my Favorite Albums list. Her first list topper was 2016's "Emily's D+Evolution." She also made my list in 2012 with "Radio Music Society." 

“12 Little Spells” finds Spalding conjuring in the medium of musical creation, through an exploration of the body, human energy and healing. 

Esperanza does not write pop songs… so this is not for the one that wants pop hooks and catchy melodies. Esperanza is an artist of the utmost sense of experimentalism and eclecticism. She is not like anybody else out there. She records albums, not individual songs looking for that hit single. Her goal is to express her inner soul and create a work of art instead of a work of commercialism – I respect her for that. Now to be certain with the vocal ability Esperanza possesses and the musical talent with which she is gifted, she has the ability to produce the most polished pop music out there and make hits – but that is not who she is. She is an artist – not a product.

With this album, Esperanza calls her songs spells instead of songs. I am guessing because there’s a magical quality to each and every one of them. Each song (‘er spell) is about a body part.

 "Thing" by Esperanza Spalding (2019)

Worthy Mentions
These are the ones that did not make the Top 15 but are worth mentioning
"She Remembers Everything" by Rosanne Cash
"Look Alive" by Guster
"What's My Name" by Ringo Starr
"Rewind, Repeat, Rebound" by Volbeat
"Phase" by Jessy Wilson

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Rock Albums XX - Best Albums of 2018

Rock Albums XX - Best Albums of 2018

I love this time of year because this is the time that I reflect on the past year and rate the albums that I came to love the most. 

2018 marks the 8th consecutive year I have done my Best Albums of the Year list.

This year was the year of jazz for me. I have long been a diehard jazz fan but my love for jazz exploded exponentially this year. 8 of my Top 15 albums are jazz or jazz influenced. With the Top 6 being straight ahead jazz.

But to be sure my tastes in music are still varied with R&B, Soul, Alt-Rock, Folk and Retro New Wave making the list this.

Eight of the artits on this list have been on previous Year-End lists including Jose James, Paul Simon, Joe Henry, Cat Power, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Enjoy, Stfon Harris and Jack White (this is his third showing on the Year-End List). His highest showing thus far is #3 with 2014's "Lazaretto."

For those of you interested in seeing the previous Top 15 charts the following is a list of links to see each one:





15. In The Blue Light - Paul Simon

Release Date: September 7, 2018
Label: SMG, Legacy
Producer: Paul Simon, Roy Halee
Genres: Jazz, Jazz Fusion, Alternative Adult, Pop

Chart Positions: #70 (US), #7 (Scotland), #10 (UK), #14 (Switzerland), #15 (Spain), #16 (Netherlands), #21 (Belgium), #24 (Ireland), #29 (Austria), #33 (Sweden), #36 (Germany), #40 (Czechoslavakia), #91 (Canada), 31 (US Jazz), #3 (US Americana/Folk), #9 (US Rock), #10 (US Vinyl Albums), #14 (US Digital Albums)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No Singles Released

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - Paul Simon never disappoints. Solid start to finish.

When I bought this album I was expecting to hear your standard Paul Simon style (which in itself is great). I was expecting Simon to continue along the lines of "Stranger To Stranger" his 2016 album which reached the Top 3 in the US and #1 in the UK. So when I took my first listen to the album I was pleasantly surprised to hear "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor," with a beautiful tinkling piano leading the way for a bluesy jazz vocal and jazz instrumentation. I was floored. This was great. So after this, I was expecting the album to revert to standard Paul Simon, but that did not happen, it continued with a jazz flair through the entire album. I was in jazz heaven. 

Sadly this was not Paul's highest charting album. As a matter of fact, in the US it is his lowest charting studio album ever. Alas, the charts do not reflect the outstanding music found within. Paul Simon, despite the fact that he has been on the music scene for near 60 years, remains a trendsetter. He continues to release music that moves forward and discovers new avenues that he has not discovered before while digging back to favorite muses. Paul may be a star of yesteryear but he is certainly a trailblazer of the current day. 

Despite his low showing on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart, Simon did conquer a first-time success with "In The Blue Light," he reached #1 on the US Jazz Albums chart. This album is a solid jazz hit. 

My feeling is that Simon deserves at least a Grammy nomination (in the jazz category) for this album.

"One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor" (2018)

Paul Simon (2018)

14. Joe Henry - Thrum

Release Date: October 27, 2017
Label: earMUSIC
Producer: Joe Henry
Genres: Americana, Folk, Rock

Chart Positions: #130 (Netherlands), #169 (Belgium)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No Singles Released

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - Joe Henry sets a mood that continues through the whole album that soothes your soul and rouses your mind.

So this album was released in 2017, not 2018. you may ask why is it on my list of "best albums of 2018"? That's a good question... and I have an answer. I did not discover this album until February or March of 2018. As much as I love Joe Henry's music - he is not a top of the chart artist and his music is hardly promoted. I usually do not catch on to his new releases until several months after they've been on the market (the same thing happens with Deerhoof). Anyhow, I found the album and loved it. This album was a favorite of mine through 2018, therefore, it is here on this list.

Joe Henry never strays too far from his classic sound, which he perfected with his 1996 album "Trampoline" and has continued to improve upon with each subsequent album. His style is an understated form of modern folk-rock Americana. He's somewhere between Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello and 100% original. 

"Thrum", in my humble opinion, is Henry's best work to date. That's saying quite a bit considering his catalog of great works including "Tiny Voices" and "Blood From Stars," Henry is unstoppable in his endeavors in creating music that passes the test of artistic creativity and meaningful social commentary. 

Each song is crystal clear with each instrument easily discernable. But best of all is Joe’s voice. Right from the start, Joe’s grainy voice has been full of personality and a treat to hear. At the age of 57, it seems as if his voice has grown more powerful and his sense of emotive prowess has developed far beyond anything he has done before.

With “Thrum” Joe digs a little deeper into his soul and introspective devices. What makes the album even more interesting is the fact that his son Levon Henry (yes that would be Madonna’s nephew) is part of Joe’s band. Levon plays a range of clarinets and saxophones and is the featured whistler in “Keep Us In Song.” 

Joe gives us his Bob Dylan vocal style (yet more refined in voice than Dylan) with the folk tune “Climb,” Levon adds a spark of intimacy with his alto sax that quietly flavors the song. Joe’s aggressive vocal in the story song “Believe” tells his story of lost and regained faith and hope. The stripped-down arrangement of bass, guitar and drums brings Joe’s voice and lyrics to the forefront of the song. 

The album has a recurring theme of faith and hope and “Dark Is Light Enough” keeps in line with this theme. Joe conveys his message that even in the dark there is light with a strong and harmonic lead vocal.

“Quicksilver” is one of the album’s highlight track. In its simplicity, Joe describes the damages and delights of love. While “River Floor” was the single premiered three weeks before the album's release. “Keep Us In Song” closes the album with a message about these changing times, how we age and experience loss. But in the end, it is dedication and love that will keep us going and keep us strong. The song ends with the faint and haunting whistling of Levon Henry.

"River Floor" (2017)

Joe Henry 2017

13. Cat Power - Wanderer

Release Date: October 5, 2018
Label: Domino
Producer: Cat Power
Genres: Folk-Blues, Folk-Rock, Indie Rock

Chart Positions: #96 (US), #10 (Portugal), #11 (Switzerland), #18 (Germany, Scotland), #19 (France), #21 (Austria), #24 (Belgium, Spain), #29 (UK), #42 (Australia), #45 (Sweden), #71 (Ireland), #90 (Netherlands), #93 (Italy), #4 (US Independent Albums, US Americana/Folk), #7 (US Vinyl), #10 (US Alternative Albums), #18 (US Rock), #23 (US Digital)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
"Wanderer" (N/A)
"Woman" #20 (US Adult Alternative)
"Stay" (N/A)

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - This is one of Cat Power's most beautiful albums. The songs flow together smoothly and maintain a mellow edge.

This album had been a long time in the making. It was six years since Cat Power's last album, 2012's "Sun." During the time between "Sun" and "Wanderer," Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) she had been diagnosed with a hereditary disease named angioedema for which over the next few years she had been hospitalized more than eight times. In the early part of 2015, she had given birth to her first and only child, a son, who you can see pictured on the album cover. Chan took a few years to raise her son before recording "Wanderer."

This album like Chan's past albums is consistently fresh and filled with Chan unmistakable intimacy. She is always personal with her songs and crafts them as if she is crafting each one personally for you the listener. Putting that personal touch on her music is important to Chan. 

Every song on the album is a standout but one of the most exciting songs on the album is “Woman” an eerie duet with Lana Del Rey. Chan’s and Lana’s voices blend so beautifully and perfect that it’s hard to distinguish one voice from the other. “Woman” is the only song on the album recorded after Chan’s departure from her longtime label Matador. Some say the song is somewhat a rebel song against the label. 

"Woman" (with Lana Del Rey)

Cat Power (Chan Marshall)(2018)

12. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - Soul of a Woman

Release Date: November 17, 2017
Label: Daptone
Producer: Gabriel Roth, Neal Sugarman
Genres: R&B, Soul, Funk, Retro-Soul

Chart Positions: #106 (US), #43 (Netherlands), #71 (Belgium), #199 (France), #2 (US Vinyl Album), #9 (US Independent), #10 (US R&B)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
"Matter Of Time" #30 (US Adult Alternative)
"Sail On" (N/A)

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - This is real R&B at it's best... the way they did it back in the 1960s and 70s... pure soul all the way!!!

Sharon Jones has a voice that sits amongst the best of the best. Her range and depth of soul are comfortable next to any of the greats like Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston. Sadly Sharon never made it to the big time like the others. She spent many years working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island and an armored car guard for Wells Fargo Bank. Sharon was a tough girl with a beautiful soulful voice. During this time she also sang in her church and also with local funk bands. Finally in 1996 (at the age of 40) her big break came when she did a session recording backing funk legend Lee Fields. This session brought her to the attention of producer Gabriel Roth who later formed the Dap-Kings. Jones released 4 singles with Roth between 1996 through 1991. At the age of 46 Sharon finally realized the release of her first full-length album with The Dap-Kings. Unlike the others Sharon Jones was a late bloomer in the music business - but no less talented. 

The highlight track in this collection of great retro-soul is the closing track "Call On God" in which Sharon turns up the Gospel with the same sort of fervor as Aretha Franklin or Mahalia Jackson while retaining a soulful quiet storm vocal that mesmerizes as well as inspires. Sharon sings with gutsy soul on the album's first single "Matter of Time" and a great horn section opens the seconds single "Sail On."

"Soul of a Woman" is a wonderfully diverse palette of R&B featuring hints of Motown, Philly Soul, Quiet Storm, Gospel, Nu-Soul and just good old fashioned great singing and playing.

As wonderful as this album is this album will always be met with a somber sadness being the first album released after Sharon's untimely passing in 2016 (at the age of 60s) due to pancreatic cancer. 

Call On God (2017)

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

11. Steve Hobbs - Tribute To Bobby

Release Date: January 12, 2018
Label: Challenge Records
Producer: Aaron Nevezie, John Riley, Steve Hobbs
Genres: Jazz, Hard Bop

Chart Positions: N/A
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No Singles Released

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - A great jazz album well worth being recognized for its musicianship and originality and just pure great music.

2018 was definitely the year of the vibraphonist for me with both Steve Hobbs and Stefon Harris riding high on my year-end chart. Harris is a long time favorite while I just discovered Hobbs with this album. 

Several months after jazz great Bobby Hutcherson passed away Hobbs decided to do this tribute to Bobby. Hutcherson was a well-known session player having shown up on albums by Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Donald Byrd, Harold Land and many others. Though as a leader he recorded his first album in 1963 in which he was able to put his skills as a vibraphonist front and center. Many current day vibraphonists were inspired by Bobby including Stefon Harris and Steve Hobbs.

This tribute album is different from others in that instead of recording songs written by Bobby Hutcherson, Hobbs composed many of the songs and added a few classics that Bobby liked. Basically, it is a tribute to Hutcherson's playing style.

Initially, it is the album cover that enticed me to give this album a listen. I listen to more than 2,000 albums per year. There are different reasons as to why I will or won't listen to an album. If I don't like the album cover or the title of the album or the band's name I will pass on it without giving the music a chance (I know that seems a bit closed minded). But for me music is more than just the music itself - it's a whole package. If the album doesn't pass my initial visual test than it is passed up. Obviously "Tribute To Bobby" passed that visual test. Next, I listen to samples of the songs, if the album passes the auditory test then I decide whether or not the album is one I want to spend money on. I end up purchasing about 250 albums per year. The prerequisite for any album making my Year End list is that it must be one that I liked enough to purchase. Bingo! You've got it I purchased Steve Hobbs' album and now I am a fan and will purchase more of his albums!!!

"Tribute To Bobby" like most great vibraphone albums is heavy on percussion and is one of the focal points that makes the album stand above the rest. The percussive work ranges from funk and experimental ("Thelonious Monk") to calypso ("Let's Go To Abaco") to Latin-tinged hard bop ("Besame Mucho" and "El Sueno de Horace Silver") to Gospel ("The Road To Happy Destiny").

This album is well textured and diverse and is guaranteed to please even the most discerning ear.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Steve Hobbs about this album and would like to share some insights that Steve shared with me.

As said by Steve Hobbs: "I have struggled with alcohol and drugs for decades and my life was falling apart. I threw in the towel and moved into a homeless shelter for recovering drug addicts in June of 2015. It's called The Salvation Army Men's Recovery Center in Charlotte North Carolina. During this time I built a better relationship with my Savior Jesus Christ. I wrote the music for this album while in the church at the recovery center during my breaks from my pot washing job where I worked 65 hours a week washing dishes and mopping floors. Many of the songs are about addiction or recover such as "The Craving Phenomenon" and "Into The Storm," the latter about the terror of living in active addiction. "New Creation" is a term used in the Bible used for Paul after his encounter with God and his change from Saul to Paul. "Tres Vias" (which translates to Three Paths) is an obvious Latin influence. The three paths refers to The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. "the Road To Happy Destiny" is about overcoming hardship (drug addiction) and serving God. "In From The Storm" is about the peace of living a drug-free life and my apology to my wife for putting her through a lot of turmoil."

Hobbs says that playing jazz is important to him but helping others with substance abuse issues is his main focus in life right now.  It's obvious that "Tribute To Bobby" is a very personal album for Steve and it shows very much in the music. I guess this is why this album has struck a chord with me and became one of my favorites in 2018.

Steve Hobbs Interview

Steve Hobbs (2018)

10. Lenny Kravitz - Raise Vibration

Release Date: September 7, 2018
Label: Roxie Records, BMG
Producer: Lenny Kravitz
Genres: Rock, Funk, R&B

Chart Positions: #43 (US), #1 (Poland), #2 (Italy), #3 (Germany, Switszerland), #4 (Austria, Belgium, Czekoslavakia, #5 (Spain), #8 (Netherlands), #11 (Poland), #13 (Scotland), #19 (Hungary, UK), #5 (US Rock Albums)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
"It's Enough": #75 (France)
Five More Days 'Til Summer": N/A
"Low": #7 (Iceland), #9 (France), #6 (Belgium), #34 (Croatia), #38 (Slovakia), #53 (Italy), #61 (Germany), #69 (Switzerland), #99 (Scotland), #1 (US Dance)

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - This is an amazingly strong rocking album with hints of R&B. A great comeback for Lenny Kravitz.

The hits aren't as big as they used to be and the album didn't peak as high as some of his earlier works but the quality is still there. At the age of 54 and after 30 years in the spotlight Lenny Kravitz is still in top form.

Each song stands on its own and Lenny's guitar work is stellar. The album doesn't introduce anything groundbreaking or new but shines with a fantastic professionalism that makes this one of Lenny's stand out albums of his entire career.

The anti donald trump anthem "Who Really Are The Monsters" has a Prince-like electro-funk rhythm that is out of this world.

The highlight of the album is unmistakably "Low," a track which he wrote back in 2000 when he was working with Michael Jackson on his album "Invincible," the track was never used at that time. In recording this song Kravitz used Michael's vocals from some of the tracks he wrote and sang with Michael. I love the funky horns on this one. "Low" has classic written all over it.

Low (2018)

Lenny Kravitz (2018)

9. Underground System - What Are You

Release Date: October 12, 2018
Label: Soul Clap
Producer: Domenica Fossati, Peter Matson
Genres: Dance, Afrobeat, Electronic, New Wave

Chart Positions: N/A
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No Singles Released

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - Fresh, catchy, dancey and great production value.

Lead singer Domenica Fossati has an unusually versatile voice. In one song she can sound sweet and fresh while the next ethnic and edgy. But Domenica is more than just the fantastic lead singer she is also the album's co-producer and plays flute and percussion. But it is Olatunji Tunji that plays the great afrobeat congo drums heard on most of the tracks. Bandleader Peter Matson took on the lion's share of the production duties as well as playing guitar and creating great funky samples.

Underground System recognizes Nigerian musician Fela Kuti as a major influence and named themselves after his 1992 album "U.S. (Underground System)".

Each song on this album is energetically danceable and contains afro-rhythms that enshrine mystery, darkness, happiness and light all in one. If you are a club disc jockey this is one to check out.

"Go" (2018)

Underground System (2018)

8. Enjoy - Small Car Big Wheels

Release Date: June 29, 2018
Label: Burger Records
Producer: Wyatt Shears
Genres: Alt-Rock, New Wave, Cosmo-Pop, Indie-Pop, Post Punk

Chart Positions: N/A
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No singles have been released from this album

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - "Small Car Big Wheels" is a modern pop-rock album that is filled with pure fun and is a great enjoyable listen 

I discovered Enjoy (along with Wyatt Shears his twin brother Fletcher and their punk-ish band The Garden) in 2016 when the Enjoy album "Another Word For Joy" was released (I still love that album and listen to it regularly). Wyatt has released another winner and this one is more sonically advanced than the previous with more clarity and attention to detail given to each instrument.

It is with "Another Word For Joy" that I came up with the term Cosmo-Pop ( a sort of spacey futuristic rock-pop sound). Not many albums fit this bill but definitely Enjoy's "Small Car Big Wheels" and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's 2016 albums "Corazones" and "Umbrella Mistress" belong in this category.

With this album, Wyatt employees, a grab bag of interesting and fun sound effects and puts drums and guitars up front and center. His leads vocals have also been defined much better than in past releases. "Small Car Big Wheels" is a fun summer type album sure to bring life to any party.

"Small Car Big Wheels" (2018)

Wyatt Shears (2018)

7. Jack White - Boarding House Reach

Release Date: March 23, 2018
Label: Columbia Records, Third Man Records, XL
Producer: Jack White
Genres: Rock, Experimental Rock, Blues Rock, Art-Rock

Chart Positions: #1 (US, Canada), #4 (Portugal), #5 (UK, Scotland, Switzerland), #8 (Austria), #10 (Belgium, Netherlands), #11 (Australia, France, Poland), #16 (Czechoslavakia), #17 (Germany, Ireland), #19 (Finaldn, Spain), #25 (New Zealand), #32 (Italy), #40 (Denmark), #1 (US Alternative Rock, US Rock)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
"Connected By Love": #18 (US Alternative Rock), #27 (US Rock), #25 (Canada Alternative Rock, Canada Rock)
"Corporation": N/A
"Over and Over and Over": #20 (US Alternative Rock), #32 (Canada Rock), #33 (US Rock, Canada Alternative Rock)
"Ice Station Zebra": N/A

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - This album is filled with surprises from start to finish and a variety of musical textures and genres.

Jack White is one of those musicians that always manages to bring something fresh and cutting edge to the table. His music is not without creativity and thought. It's evident that White does not go to the studio and say, "let's cut ten songs and be on our way." He puts a lot of thought into what he's doing. He takes the time to ensure that his current project is not a repeat of previous projects. With each album Jack White does move ahead but not in a manner that alienates his fans. Jack White's fans look forward to progression and change... and Jack White always delivers for his fans. "Boarding House Rech" is no exception. With his third solo album White more than satisfies his fan base and beyond.

"Boarding House Reach" is Jack's most cutting-edge work of his solo career. It takes him back to his most experimental early works with The White Stripes. This is Jack's rebellion album in which he rebels against the "corporation," commercialism and greed. This is his most unmarketable and least commercial album to date but to be assured this will not stop his fans from buying the album - if anything it will make them love him more. I know I have a renewed respect for the man for not falling prey to commercialism and standing up for originality, art and eclecticism.

The biggest highlights for me are Jack's lead vocals which range from everything like Freddy Mercury to blues to all-out rock. The other highlight (the real and true highlight) is Jack's guitar work. We find all sorts of guitar styles - funky, heavy and chunky, bluesy, distorted, hard rock solos and it's all done with the finest of skill. Jack White is one of the great guitarists of this generation.

"Why Walk A Dog" (2018)

Jack White (2018)

6. The New Mastersounds - Renewable Energy

Release Date: April 13, 2018
Label: One Note Records
Producer: Eddie Roberts
Genres: Jazz, Jazz Fusion, Funk, Soul

Chart Positions: N/A
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No singles released from this album

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - Some great percussion and guitars... rhythmic grooves that keep on movin'!!!

Some of the greatest albums and musician never make it to the charts yet they have enough of a loyal fan base to continue making great music for decades. The New Mastersounds is one such band, having been on the music scene since 2001 releasing 13 studio albums and having brought early recognition to the sweet-voiced Corinne Bailey on a grooving number "Your Love Is Mine" on their 2003 album "Be Yourself." All their albums are produced by their guitarist Eddie Roberts.

The New Mastersounds are proud of this effort and claim that the songs from this album play extremely well in their live sets and have become new staples that their audiences enjoy.

With "Renewable Energy" The New Mastersounds keep the focus on percussion retaining a strong backbeat in all the songs whether it is the Simon Allen on drums, Pete Shand aptly on bass or other instruments carrying the rhythm of the music. Eddie Roberts' guitar finesse is also front and center with his crisp clean chords and Bob Birch is smokin' hot on his Hammond organ.

"Renewable Energy" is one of those albums that easy to enjoy at any time and in any mood. It's a great party album as well as a great cool down album at the end of a long day of work. One thing is for sure it keeps the groove going all the way through. This is a great "makes you feel good" album.

"Tantalus" (2018)

The New Mastersounds (2018)

5. Allan Harris - The Genius of Eddie Jefferson

Release Date: May 4, 2018
Label: Resilience Music Alliance
Producer: Brian Bacchus
Genres: Jazz, Vocalese, Post Bop

Chart Positions: N/A
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No singles released from this album

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - Excellent vocal jazz

I am always on the hunt for a good jazz album. I found this one searching through Amazon. com's Jazz New Releases. The album cover caught my attention. I found it to be crisp, clean, classy and professional. So I gave it a listen and immediately knew I would be purchasing this one.

Harris' tenth studio album is a salute to the music of
Eddie Jefferson, a jazz vocalist and lyricist noted as an innovator of vocalese, a musical style in which lyrics are set to an instrumental composition or of Jefferson's earliest vocalist recordings is "So What," which combines the lyrics of artist Christopher Acemandese Hall true the music of Miles Davis.

Allan Harris gives a fitting tribute to Eddie Jefferson. Paris Masters the many Jazz vocal styles of which Jefferson was expert including scat, vocalist, Blues, ballad and more.

aside from being a great tribute album This Album stand on its own. Harris has recorded a classic that will endure through the years and decades.

"So What" (2018)

Allan Harris (2018)

4. Michael Franks - The Music In My Head

Release Date: June 8, 2018
Label: Shanachie
Producer: Gil Goldstein, Chuck Loeb, Scott Petito, Charles Blenzig, Jimmy Haslip
Genres: Jazz, Vocal Jazz, Smooth Jazz

Chart Positions: #2 (US Jazz Albums), #30 (US Independent Albums)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No singles released from this album

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - The king of smooth jazz strikes again and sends us another winning album.

This album really popped up out of nowhere. Franks' last album was released in2011 and frankly, I really didn't think he'd be releasing another album. I saw it while browsing Amazon's new releases and right away I ordered a copy - I didn't even think about it I just ordered it. My first listen was like heaven. Michael's voice is still as smooth and gripping as always. At the age of 74, he is still in peak vocal performance. But it goes much further than that his lyrics are still as unique and interesting inserting bits of humor here and there and the musicianship is top-notch with touches of edginess and originality making his music much more than your standard cookie cutter smooth jazz album.

The best thing about listening to this album is the familiarity about it. Even though all the songs are new I got the feeling that I've known these songs all my life and then there's that voice that so often soothed my soul in between listening to my classic rock and new wave albums of the 1970s and 1980s. Michael Franks still has the ability to melt my soul - and that's a good thing.

"The Idea of a Tree" (2018)

Michael Franks (2018)

3. Jose James - Lean On Me

Release Date: September 28, 2018
Label: Blue Note
Producer: Don Was
Genres: R&B, Quiet Storm, Neo-Soul, Soul-Jazz, Jazz Funk

Chart Positions: #53 (Belgium), #62 (Austria), #76 (Spain), #93 (Netherlands), #5 (US Jazz Albums)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No singles released from this album

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - A tribute album that tops all tribute albums. Each song written and recorded by Bill Withers is expertly reinterpreted by Jose James (a classic in his own right).

Jose James first came to my attention back in 2016 with his 2015 Billie Holiday tribute album titled "Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday," that album made it to #6 on my 2016 year-end chart. James sang those Billie Holiday standards true to the soul, I knew then that Jose James was a top rate singer and musician.

2018 brings another tribute album, this one honoring the classic Bill Withers. Is Jose James simply a covers artists? One might think he is, but his musical scope, range and depth are far more than any cover artist. Jose James is a singer's singer and even when he does a tribute album he does it with his own unique brand of originality, keeping true to the originals yet giving them his own recognizable style. Jose James is 100% an original.

With "Lean On Me" James pays tribute to Bill Withers and gives us his treatment of classics such as "Lean On Me," "Ain't No Sunshine," "Use Me," "Lovely Day," "Just The Two of Us" and several other key tracks. James retains the original groove and timbre of each song while bringing them his own voice and style. Bill Withers commented on how pleased he was with the final result.

Lovely Day (2018)

Jose James (2018)

2. Roller Trio - New Devices

Release Date: June 22, 2018
Label: Edition Records
Producer: Roller Trio
Genres: Jazz, Jazz Rock, Jazz Fusion, Experimental Jazz

Chart Positions: N/A
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
No singles released from this album

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - One amazing work of experimental jazz melded with rock guitar, psychedelic saxophone and propulsive drums which at times each become the center of the show and turn into something you've never heard before.

The most amazing thing about this album is the band's ability to take traditional instruments such as saxophone, drums, guitar, etc and make them sound like they've never sounded before. Roller Trio has the unique ability to twist sounds into something new, abstract and unique. This band is everything I look for in a jazz band; musicality, experimentalism and great rhythms without ever being "just the same old thing."

The band's guitarist (and bass player), Chris Sharkey, was previously in the Jimi Hendrix influenced jazz-punk band called Acoustic Ladyland, knowing this was enough to get me to listen to "new Devices" as I am a huge Jimi Hendrix fan... but there's more. James Manwaring, who plays saxophone and adds synthesized effects to the music is amazing. He can do things with the saxophone that I have never heard before and brings the listener into a world of sound that carries you into an undiscovered dimension of thought and sound.

Prior to "New Devices" Manwaring and band member Luke Reddin-Williams had experimented with electronics on their 2014 album "Fracture," with songs like "Tracer" and "Tightrope," these were the first songs they tried improvising while recording separately via multi-tracking to a click track. But Roller Trio's sound took a big turn around when they parted ways with the other Luke,  guitarist Luke Wynter who moved down to London. Guitarist Chris Sharkey was asked to join the band which thrilled James Manwaring and Luke Reddin-Williams as they consider Sharkey to be one of their music heroes.

Chris Sharkey has been the biggest factor in the change of Roller Trio's sound. With a shared interest in electronics, Chris led the new sound with live sampling - taking a solo sax recording James had sent him which became the electronic parts in "Decline of Northern Civilisation." The same process proceeded on "Mad Dryad" with acoustic guitar as its source material. When the album was finished, more fun began; figuring out how the band could play it live, Chris switched from guitar to bass and Ableton Live (a music software) via multiple midi controllers, James with saxophone and various effects presets and Luke using in-ear monitoring to play the drums.

Roller Trio is high on my list of band's to watch and you know I will be first in line when their next album is released.

"Nobody Wants To Run The World" (2018)

Roller Trio (2018)

Roller Trio (2018)

1. Stefon Harris + Blackout - Sonic Creed

Release Date: June 22, 2018
Label: Motema
Producer: Stefon Harris
Genres: Jazz, Classical Jazz, Hard Bop, Soul Jazz

Chart Positions: #12 (US Jazz), #1 (Jazz Week)
Certifications: N/A

Singles and Chart Positions:
"Chasin'Kendall": #1 (World Jazz Top 20 Singles)

Best Cuts: ALL TRACKS - One amazing work of experimental jazz melded with rock guitar, psychedelic saxophone and propulsive drums which at times each become the center of the show and turn into something you've never heard before.

Stefon's last album was 2011's "Ninety Miles," a collaboration album he did with David Sanchez and Christian Scott. This was a great jazz album with hints of funk and Latin jazz. The album placed at #8 on my 2011 Year-End Favorite Albums list (which by the way was the first year I compiled this list).

After "Ninety Miles" I kept a close watch for a new release by Stefon Harris - but it didn't seem to come. Two years went by - nothing - four years - nothing - five years - still nothing - so I gave up. I figured maybe he retired or maybe he was sick - I searched around to find out what happened - but no word anywhere.

Finally seven years later Harris gives us "Sonic Creed," I waited a long time for this album and was it ever worth it. From the very first drum beat of "Dat Dere" I just knew the album was going to be a major winner. The album is filled with rhythm, with chill, with class and a bit of edge. Harris once again proves he is the master of the vibraphone as he so smoothly taps his instrument on this collection of finely performed songs. It is evident that Harris and Blackout bandmembers poured their hearts and souls into this album resulting in a finished product that both touches the soul and warms the heart.

Harris wrote two of the tracks, the hit "Chasin' Kendall" and the super smooth quiet storm "Let's Take A Trip To The Sky," in which Jean Baylor gives us a beautifully soulful vocal performance. One of the album's highlights is Harris' rendition of Wayne Shorter's "Go," a song which first appeared on Shorter's 1969 album "Schizophrenia." Harris' version focuses more on the rhythm and gives the arrangement a brassier sound and slight edge from blending saxophone parts with the electric guitar. Of course, Harris treats us to an expert vibes performances adding his own class and style to the song.

"Sonic Creed" made it to #12 on Billboard Magazine's Jazz Albums chart making this Harris' highest charting album to date.

"Go" (2018)

Stefon Harris (2018)

Stefon Harris (2018)

Worthy Mentions...
These are the ones that did not make my Top 15 list but deserve a mention
Bjork - Utopia
Editors - Violence
Hieroglyphic Being - The Red Notes
Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour (Grammy nominated for Album of the Year)
Willie Nelson - Last Man Standing (Grammy Nominated for Best American Roots Album)
Shopping - The Official Body
Barbra Streisand - Walls


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