1) Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids - An Angel Fell
2) Phish - Kasvot Växt í Rokk
3) Eamon O'Leary - All Souls
4) Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell - The Maid with the Flaxen Hair
5) Andrew Marlin - Buried in a Cape
The next five, in less particular of an order, are:
Alina Engibaryan - We Are
Khruangbin - Con Todo El Mundo
John Prine - The Tree of Forgiveness
Jimi Tenor - Order of Nothingness
Circles Around the Sun - Let It Wander
Below I have categorized these in more detail.
Best Singer-Songwriter Album - All Souls by Eamon O'Leary
Eamon O'Leary beat out one of the all-time greats (John Prine) to take the top slot in this category. John Prine's The Tree of Forgiveness falls in the top ten overall, but All Souls probably ranks in the top three for me this year.
On All Souls Eamon has fine-tuned his brand of self-penned melancholy ballads and distilled it into a near perfect ten song package. There's a charming, seductive edge to these songs and still another quality that for some reason brings to mind the sounds of Wake of the Flood and From the Mars Hotel era Grateful Dead studio albums.
Best Acoustic Instrumental Album - Buried in a Cape by Andrew Marlin
I'm a sucker for CDs of all original fiddle tunes and Buried in a Cape is perhaps the best album I've ever heard in this category. The primary influence seems to be vintage late 70's/early 80's Newgrass ala Tony Rice and Sam Bush. But there's also stately compositions like the type found on Norman Blake's Natasha's Waltz, jazzy numbers that wouldn't sound out of place under the fingers of Jethro Burns or Tiny Moore, and crooked old-time fiddle tunes that seem as if they were plucked straight from the hills.
Andrew Marlin is best known as a songwriter in the increasingly popular duo Mandolin Orange. With the all-instrumental Buried in a Cape it's clear that he can add "formidable tune composer and instrumentalist" to his reputation. It doesn't quite seem fair that a lyricist of Andrew's caliber should also be capable of writing such memorable fiddle tunes but here is the proof.
Best Electric Instrumental Album - Con Todo El Mundo by Khruangbin
This is the most competitive category for my musical taste. I had several contenders in this style, including Five Star Motel by Gitkin, Spacesuit by Robert Walter's 20th Congress, Road to Knowhere by Tommy Guerrero, The Serpent's Mouth by Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band, and Let It Wander by Circles Around the Sun.
Khruangbin wins, however. Con Todo El Mundo expands upon the retro thai funk they established on their full-length 2015 debut The Universe Smiles Upon You while still keeping that signature blend of guitar melody, counterpoint bass-lines, and "snap" drumming. Whether you approach this music as chilled-out psychedelia or uptempo exotica, there's a dependable magnetism to Khruangbin's unique take on the art of music making.
Best Album Featuring Mary Halvorson or Bill Frisell - The Maid with the Flaxen Hair
It's true that I eat up almost everything Bill Frisell or Mary Halvorson puts out. In 2018 the choices were many. In Mary's case, among the releases she participated in, I returned frequently to Theirs by Thumbscrew. In Bill's case it's hard to overlook his long-awaited solo studio album Music Is. Nonetheless, crushing everything in its wake is the monumentally demure and completely unexpected collaboration between Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell called The Maid with the Flaxen Hair.
Most Unexpected Album - We Are by Alina Engibaryan
A random choice caused me to duck into 55 Bar late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 24, 2018. The place was empty and it looked like a nice, quiet spot to have a Guinness before going to the Village Vanguard later that evening. Little did I know that an hour later I'd be taking in one of the most memorable live sets of my life. The bartender mentioned that the band starting in a few minutes was going to be good. Soon the room was packed and the music had started. Not being familiar with Snarky Puppy I had no idea that this ensemble included Michael League on bass and Chris Bullock on sax. I just knew it sounded good, incredibly good, and that I really liked the songs by the keyboardist and vocalist, who turned out to be Alina Engibaryan. She was featuring material from her brand new CD titled We Are.
We stayed for the entire first and set and would have stayed for more had it not been for other commitments. It was not until the next day that I started to look up who and what that was we had seen play. Moments later I was listening to We Are on Spotify knowing that it would likely end up on my best of 2018 list. And here it is! Alina's music is a little more poppy than I'm used to, but having seen the organic live at 55 Bar version I know it's the real deal. And with that backing band (Michael League, bass; Chris Bullock, saxophone; Ross Pederson, drums), her jazz-informed songs are nothing less than ear candy.
Best Surprise Album by My Favorite Band - Kasvot Växt í Rokk by Phish
This is what space smells like. Phish started the now common live band musical tradition of secretly covering an album on Halloween with The Beatles' White Album in 1994. Subsequent years have included Remain In Light by The Talking Heads, Loaded by The Velvet Underground, and the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. Faceplant into rock. Phish occasionally turns this tradition on its head by using the Halloween "cover" set as an opportunity to debut an album of all new original material. Perception is spoon fed. That's what happened for their middle set on 10/31/18 when they performed a 1981 record called í Rokk by the so-obscure-they-are-fictional Scandinavian band Kasvot Växt, even going so far as to plant back-dated album reviews, interviews and crate-digger articles on the internet as proof of its provenance. I'm the glue in your magnet.
All of this proved to be a hoax of course....Kasvot Växt í Rokk was simply an excuse to inhabit the persona of a fake band of Phish's own creation as a means of debuting ten new original songs in a style that does and doesn't quite sound like the Phish we know and love, with lyrics that are however so Phishy that they could in fact be lost in translations from a mixture of Icelandic, Norwegian, and Vonlenska. Say it to me S.A.N.T.O.S. Even if these songs weren't so damn good and catchy Phish would still deserve an A for the artistic design work that went into this (stage setup, wardrobe, choreography, performance...). We are come to outlive our brains. But the songs are good - better with each listen. I hope someone notices.
(I might as well create another category called "Best Improvised Music Played Live on Stage That Leaves Behind the Song Structure". If so, this category would be created so that it could also recognize Phish based on moments during almost any show they played during their Summer or Fall 2018 tours. There's a type of improvisation that Phish does which its fans have named Type II Jamming in which they leave the song structure behind and compose new, (usually) awesome sounding music on the spot while on stage in front of live audiences in excess of 10,000 peeps. Phish is the best ever at this type of in the moment full-band live composition and that skill was on full display this year in a clean, melodic way that is unique to the last year or year and a half).
Best Party Album - Order of Nothingness by Jimi TenorSpotify has been helping me hone in on the sound I'm looking for and now it probably knows what I'm going to like better than I do. Jimi Tenor is one of those that popped up on my new release radar. I started with the songs My Mind Will Travel and Quantum Connection. Those made it to a summer playlist I put together and primed my taste for this album of full-on trippy and soulful Euro funk jazz.
My idea of a party album is for the party in your mind. And I hope it never stops. Order of Nothingness meets those needs.
Best Overall Album - An Angel Fell by Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids
If I were to make up a special category for this it might be "Best World Music Meets Spiritual Jazz CD" or "Best Album in the Sun Ra or Mulatu Astatke Lineage". But those qualifiers are unnecessary since An Angel Fell can simply be labeled Best of the Year.
Coming from a cosmic, here-and-now globalist perspective, the rhythms and melodies that are traversed over the course of this album's hour are so dead-on that it had no peer in 2018. The music is patient and freely spread out; the groove never dissipates, and the chant-like vocals are quite profound, not throwaway. For me a highlight is the tones band member Sandra Poindexter is able to summon from her violin. She takes an instrument - the fiddle - that doesn't always shine in a jazz setting and makes it growl. With her at the controls the violin acts as a co-lead match to Ackamoor's sax. For a band whose first album came out in 1972, An Angel Fell felt as fresh as anything I heard this year.
Best EP (tie) - Cardamom Garden by Habibi and Down in the Basement by Mauskovic Dance Band
I think I found out about Mauskovic Dance Band by searching for bands that might be influenced by Liquid Liquid or Arthur Russell - both of which are apparent in their songs. In the case of Habibi, the liking of them stems primarily from the allure of it being a kick-ass all female rock band. I'm still waiting for that all female jamband that takes the music out there on twenty-minute rides like JRAD, by the way. Back to the point, make a playlist of these two EPs back to back and you've got a killer 25 minutes ahead of you.
Best Archival Compilation - Sun Ra ExoticaThe folks at Modern Harmonic who put this three LP collection together really hit the nail on the head by calling attention to Sun Ra's connection to Exotica. The Saturnian prophet is not usually recognized as a member of or contributor to this style of music, but you can certainly notice an exotic thread there now.
Who knows where Sun Ra was coming from when he made tracks like the ones found here, but he elevates the coolness of Exotica just by association. It doesn't matter where you start or stop with this Sun Ra compilation - it's all good.
Best Archival Live Release - The Grateful Dead Pacific Northwest '73 and '74
As someone who listened to a massive amount of Grateful Dead during my twenties, I do have to say that the GD's position as the nucleus of all my music listening and liking has shifted somewhat over the last 15 years. This might explain why my jaw dropped and then remained there as I first listened to this music recorded between 1973 and 1974 in Oregon and Washington. Those two years have always been favorites among Deadheads. I've always thought of myself as more of a Brent Mydland era kind of guy (1979 to 1990) but this release puts that opinion to shame.
Maybe I had just forgotten how incredibly good - on every level - this post-Pigpen yet pre-hiatus time-period is, but these recordings make that explicitly clear. With standout version after standout version, songs such as Bird Song, Eyes of the World, Brown Eyed Women, Row Jimmy, Playing in the Band and Dark Star demonstrate that there was some important historical music being made back then.