Published Dec 06, 2018
5. Mount Eerie
(P.W. Elverum & Sun)
Now Only marks the second Mount Eerie album since the death of Geneviève Castrée, the first wife of project mastermind Phil Elverum, who died of cancer in 2016. The companion to last year's A Crow Looked at Me, which chronicled the immediate days and months following Castrée's death, Now Only looks further outward, drawing everything from a conversation with Father John Misty at a music festival and a pair of paintings into Elverum's worldview.
There are fewer songs here than on Crow, but they're longer, as the anxious swirl of a major, unexpected life change settles into reality. As Elverum draws more elements, both lyrically and instrumentally, into his palette, the message becomes more clear: grief never truly goes away, but it's possible to let it coexist with life.
While Elverum now lives in Brooklyn with his new wife Michelle Williams and their daughters, it doesn't make the tenuousness of Now Only any less real. If anything, it reveals the emotional complexity of Elverum's mindset.
4. Haley Heynderickx
I Need to Start a Garden
(Mama Bird Recording Co.)
Portland songwriter and guitarist Haley Heynderickx brings an unusually deep sense of being in the moment to her meditative, assured and arresting chamber folk-rock debut, I Need to Start a Garden. With echoes of Canadians like Feist and Julie Doiron in her vulnerable yet ultimately triumphant songs — like eight-minute centrepiece "Worth It" — Heynderickx exorcises self-doubt without losing any of her sensitivity.
Heynderickx attributes her rock-solid rhythm to a year or two of bluegrass guitar tutelage under Oregon's Steve Blanchard, who got her playing to a metronome, yet nothing sounds rigid on I Need to Start a Garden, which from start to end breathes organically with the sound of Heynderickx's warm, plaintive voice and fluid guitar, backed by a sympathetic band in which almost everyone sings. Flourishes like bowed bass, whimsically jazzy trombone and rustling percussion reflect Heynderickx's playful, subtly psychedelic lyrics on songs that bridge the quotidian and the spiritual, and put a fresh magnifying glass up to both inner and outer worlds.
3. The Pistol Annies
The best band in country music today — a supergroup comprised of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley — bring the fire on their third record. A decidedly feminist collection of anthems, rave-ups and ballads, Interstate Gospel moves freely between the front porch, the campfire and the hot soft lights of an East Nashville club. Musically it's about as far from the slick party jams of country radio as you're liable to get these days — surely a welcome relief for Lambert, a bona fide superstar in the Nashville firmament.
Freed from commercial constraints, she and her buddies belt out superior songs about everything from escapist partying ("Stop Drop And Roll One") to aching breakups ("Masterpiece") to D-I-V-O-R-C-E in the 21st century ("Got My Name Changed Back"). A throwback to the spunky brilliance of the Dixie Chicks (to whom they're often compared, a reminder of how rare all-female acts have been in the country game), Pistol Annies have spun heartache, lust, hard-earned wisdom and fuck-you-pay-me into one of the finest Americana records of the year.
2. Jennifer Castle
Angels of Death
After the massive acclaim that 2014's Pink City brought to her songwriting, Jennifer Castle turned inward on Angels of Death, creating a yearning and extremely open look at how death surrounds one in more ways than may appear. "Tomorrow's Mourning" underscores this feeling, with strong imagery evoking travelling through life on a quiet highway (later revisited on "Tonight the Evening").
"Grim Reaper" is a frank acceptance of shuffling off the mortal coil and aiming to get the most out of each passing day. Its subtle guitar line (courtesy of the Highest Order's Paul Mortimer) is blended with soothing violins — a beautiful reminder of how refreshingly earnestly the album conveys its subject matter. The second half of the title track borrows from esteemed Canadian poet Al Purdy to speak on seeing into the future, waving to our past selves, "as if surprised, to find us still alive." It makes for a stellar piece of country-infused folk-rock.
The soul and gospel influences of "Crying Shame" coat the proceedings with a longing that resonates long after the record comes to an end. Castle has once again outdone herself on Angels of Death, a gorgeous and effortlessly stark reflection on looking your maker square in the eye until they blink.
1. Kacey Musgraves
In response to a tweet that expressed a hatred of country music but a love of Kacey Musgraves this year, the country star tweeted: "welcome to the yee yee club bitch". Following the release of Musgraves' dazzling and accessible country-pop record Golden Hour, the yee yee club swelled in size this year.
On Golden Hour, Musgraves invites us on her journey of self-discovery. She's in awe of being alive on the vocoder-infused "Oh, What a World" and she's wildly in love and celebrates it on the euphoric "Velvet Elvis" and piano-ballad closer "Rainbow."
Musgraves' road to clarity isn't always lined with rainbows and perfect lighting though. On the warmly twanged "Happy & Sad" and "Wonder Woman," Musgraves strives for balance in love and life; she also has to kick aside a few dud cowboys, as we hear on "Space Cowboy" and "High Horse" — two of the year's best songs. The former includes a top lyrical moment of 2018: a brilliantly timed pause when Musgraves sings, "You can have your space, cowboy." The sensational latter track is anchored by a glamorously groovy disco beat that's so powerful you'll want to buy a rhinestone-embossed, bellbottom nudie suit.
The Texas-born singer-songwriter has been making quick-witted country music and subverting the genre's conservative traditions since her 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park, but on Golden Hour, Musgraves perfects her craft and makes a near flawless record. Golden Hour smoothes out the roughness of the world and soothes your soul. Giddy-up.