Title: Bird Streets (Omnivore Recordings)
Tell me more: Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist wonders John Brodeur and Jason Falkner have joined forces as Bird Streets. Just listening to the pair's eponymous 11-track disc is to be awed by the power of song craft, virtuoso musicianship and creative give and take. The shimmering "Betting On The Sun" impresses with a fusion of strong melody, probing lyrics and a soundscape that thrives on vocal layers, immersive guitars and a unifying rhythm. The ambitious "Stop To Breathe" builds to a swirling climax, with multiple guitar lines that thrill even in the fade out. The tuneful Americana-tinged power pop "Same Dream" is a driving nugget, avoiding cliche while soaring to tuneful heights. On the beautiful "Spaceship" Brodeur's affecting vocals explore life's disappointments with artful candor. Bird Street was produced by Falkner, and features 11 tracks written and performed by Brodeur (in conjunction with Falkner); the disc also features guest appearances by Miranda Lee Richards and Luther Russell (The Freewheelers, Those Pretty Wrongs). Information: OmnivoreRecordings.com.
Artist: Rosanne Cash
Title: She Remembers Everything (Blue Note)
Tell me more: Songstress Rosanne Cash released the deeply-affecting She Remembers Everything on Nov. 2. The album – the artist's first new LP in nearly five years – allows one of today's most gifted female singer-songwriters to probe the continuing challenges women have in the 21st century. Indeed, Cash's 10-track disc is a powerful and revealing exploration of the experience of women highlighted in a number of roles vividly described in songs that are both lyrically literate and musically beautiful. As if Cash's talents and insight weren't formidable enough, she is joined by the illustrious likes of Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Presley (the two share lead vocals with Cash on the wonderful "Gods of Harlem"), Colin Meloy (of the Decemberists) and Sam Phillips on the brilliant album. Information: RoseanneCash.com.
Artist: Elvis Costello & The Imposters
Title: "Look Now" / Deluxe Edition (Concord Records)
Tell me more: Who knew Elvis Costello & The Imposters would be back and release one of the best albums of 2018? The proof comes via the glorious Look Now, Costello's first new album in five years (Wise Up Ghost, a collaboration with the Roots, was released in September 2013). Look Now most closely recalls Costello's 1982 Geoff Emerick-produced gem Imperial Bedroom and his masterful baroque pop collaboration with Burt Bacharach, 1998's Painted from Memory. Indeed, Bacharach has co-written and added his piano talents on several tracks on "Look Now," including the stirring title track and the poignant "Photographs Can Lie" (the latter featuring some of Costello's most affecting vocals in memory); elsewhere there are echoes of Memphis soul (the rousing "Burnt Sugar is So Bitter," a song he co-wrote with Carole King back in the '90s), Springsteen "Burn to Run"-era rock ("Unwanted Number") and even Philadelphia soul ("Suspect My Tears"). "Look Now" is co-produced by Costello and five-time Grammy winner Sebastian Krys. The stellar collection also proves to be an outstanding celebration of The Imposters (Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher). The Deluxe Edition of Look Now expands the standard LP with four additional gems including the lovely "Isabelle in Tears," French language "Adieu Paris (L'Envie Des Etoiles)" and tender "Final Mrs. Curtain." If you have not picked up "Look Now" yet, get the Deluxe Edition. Information: ElvisCostello.com.
Artist: The Fallen Stars
Title: Leaves on the Wind — Vol. 3: Can't Take The Sky From Me (Kiss My Squirrel Music)
Tell me more: When Firefly first aired on the Fox network in September 2002, it immediately captured the attention of discerning fans (now known as "Browncoats") of science fiction with its unique cast of authentic characters, blend of outer space and Western landscapes, and sharp storytelling. Although the Joss Whedon-created series was cancelled after a mere 14 episodes, the influence of the series was profound (indeed the film "Serenity" was released in 2005 to critical acclaim). Look no further than the Fallen Stars' compelling trilogy titled Leaves on the Wind, with Vol. 3: Can't Take The Sky From Me having been released in 2018. On volume 3 of Leaves on the Wind, musical duo Bobbo and Tracy Byrnes have crafted songs inspired by the final four episodes of "Firefly," as well as offering up their emotive take on Whedon's theme song for the series ("The Ballad of Serenity"). Fans of the first two "Leaves on the Wind" titles will pleased that "Can't Take The Sky From Me" is the equal with its Americana-styled songs capturing the magic of the series in song. The countrified rocker "Naked" serves as a duet for Tracy and Bobbo, whose voices shine alone or together in the spirited choruses. "Carry Me" is especially poignant, with an acoustic flavor and sweet melody that plays out in the verses and choruses. The rollicking "Home" and yearning "Here I Am" also capture the creative power of the groundbreaking sci-fi series. Information: thefallenstars.com.
Artist: First Aid Kit
Title: Ruins (Columbia)
Tell me more: The world's most amazing young Americana group is actually a duo from Sweden. Comprised of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, First Aid Kit released one of the first epic albums of 2018, the masterful Ruins. The siblings each have exceptional voices that soar alone but when blended together the results are never less than otherworldly. Take the first song "Rebel Heart," – locked together across the intoxicating verses and choruses there is one section leading to a break where timbre of their voices mirror each other via an extended note that is simply dazzling. On the introspective "It's A Shame," their sopranos cascade amidst a sonic backdrop of electric guitar (courtesy of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck), pedal steel, percussion and a sublime mix of piano and organ - the song's nuanced finale has their voices dropping low against light acoustic guitar. Other songs that impress powerfully include the melancholy-laced "Fireworks," countrified "Postcard" and yearning "Distant Star." The lyrics across the disc are gloriously literate as well, solidifying the substantial might of this 10-song release. Information: www.FirstAidKitBand.com.
Title: The Now Now (Warner Bros./Parlophone)
Tell me more: On the brilliant 2018 Gorillaz release The Now Now, singer-songwriter Damon Albarn has essentially followed up his 2014 release Everyday Robots with a sequel of sorts; the disc is intoxicating musically even while offering a lyrically-impactful search for finding one's self in a world - America in particular — where people seem to be more alone than ever. Whereas 2017's Gorillaz return Humanz was packed with all-star guests ranging from Mavis Staples and Grace Jones to Popcaan across the track listing, The Now Now is a decidedly more intimate and stronger affair. A soundscape paved with cool beats, retro synths and grooves surrounding Albarn's signature vocals, the 11-track disc includes the breezy "Humility" (featuring jazz guitarist George Benson's shining fretwork), the '80s-mining "Tranz," infectious "Lake Zurich," distant "Magic City" (complete with Blur guitarist Graham Coxon's flourishes) and the enthralling "One Percent." Information: gorillaz.com.
Artist: The Jayhawks
Title: Back Roads and Abandoned Motels (Legacy Recordings)
Tell me more: Fresh off their role backing legendary Ray Davies on his Our Country: Americana Act II, the Jayhawks have released their own brilliant masterwork titled Back Roads and Abandoned Motels. Anyone who has admired any of the Twin Cities-spawned troupe's previous albums issued across the past three decades will want to get a listen of this outstanding LP. The album opens with the Memphis-styled soul of "Come Cryin' to Me," featuring the shining vocals of band keyboardist Karen Grotberg (whose voice draws strong comparisons with Roseanne Cash). That song was co-penned by Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris and members of the Dixie Chicks and was first featured on Natalie Maines' 2013 release Mother — this version outdistances that recording in spades. The rest of the album is just strong, with band drummer Tim O'Reagan singing several tracks (including the acoustic-flavored "Long Time Ago") and Louris offering up his signature vocals across most of the disc. Outstanding song craft, lush vocal harmonies and creative arrangements are everywhere. The instantly-infectious alt-country rocker "Everybody Knows," melodic "Backwards Women," romantic "Need You Tonight" and acoustic nugget "Bird Never Flies" are among this writer's favorite songs on Back Roads and Abandoned Motels. As if the album wasn't impressive enough, all 11 tracks were recorded in just two sessions. Amazing. Information: jayhawksofficial.com.
Artist: Paul Kelly
Title: Nature (Cooking Vinyl)
Tell me more: Paul Kelly's new LP combines poetry from five literary masters (Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Phillip Larkin) as well as his own prose with a shared theme reflecting the disc's title Nature. The songcraft is as glorious as the verse with a diverse soundscape encompassing folk rock (the propulsive "With the One I Love"), Celtic-tinged folk ("And Death Shall Have No Dominion," "A Bastard Like Me"), baroque pop ("The River Song") and Americana ("Little Wolf," "Morning Storm," "The Trees"). The lush neo-classical "Bound to Follow (Aisling Song)" features soprano Kate Miller-Heidke and further captures the exhilarating spirit of this special project that simultaneously and magically celebrates the power of poetry, song and the natural world. Information: PaulKelly.com.au.
Artist: Johnny Marr
Title: Call the Comet (New Voodoo Records)
Tell me more: Since the breakup of The Smiths in 1987 guitarist Johnny Marr has carved out a wide-ranging path performing with everyone from The The and the Pretenders to Modest Mouse, Talking Heads and even famed composer Hans Zimmer! But the most astounding ripple in Marr's incredible journey has been a solo career launched with 2013's The Messenger. That album, as well as 2014's Playland and 2015's live import Adrenalin Baby, have rapidly established Marr as one of this decade's most exciting rock artists. On June 15, 2018, Marr released his third studio album Call the Comet, and the 12-song set offers definitive proof that while Marr's signature guitar work put him on the map his elevated songcraft and top-tier vocals guarantee listeners will be swept away and immersed across "Call the Comet." The disc's track listing shines from start to finish, with the spacious "Rise," evocative "Hi Hello," hypnotic "A Different Gun" and breathtaking "Walk Into the Sea" among the awe-inspiring songs. Information: JohnnyMarr.com.
Artist: The Monkees
Title: Christmas Party (Rhino Records)
Tell me more: Capturing the magic of the Monkees' most beloved recordings of the 1960s and fusing that with the energy of contemporary power pop, Christmas Party features a mix of classic seasonal favorites, artful remakes and newly-penned songs that make for one of the most inviting sets of the season. Gems fill this sparkling collection; the Andy Partridge-penned "Unwrap You At Christmas" is bolstered by a sweet string section and soaring vocals from Micky Dolenz. Michael Nesmith's affecting vocals add just the right moodscape to a wistful cover of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." A shimmering cover of the Alex Chilton-penned Big Star classic "Jesus Christ" and lush version of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" are reworked enough to make them essential. Several of the late Davy Jones' vocal tracks are used on the disc, including a lovely "Silver Bells." Peter Tork uses his rich baritone and skills on the banjo in a poignant Americana-styled version of "Angels We Have Heard On High." Among this writer's favorite tracks are the instantly-infectious "What Would Santa Do," a melodic rocker written by Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo that takes a playful swipe at those who can't get into the Christmas spirit; "House of Broken Gingerbread" is another killer new cut (this one penned by album producer Adam Schlesinger and Michael Chabon), a potent and tuneful modern rocker. Information: monkees.com.
Artist: Old 97's
Title: Love The Holidays (ATO Records)
Tell me more: The members of Old 97's truly do "love the holidays" and created the wildly spirited Christmas album in 2018 to prove it. The majority of songs on the 14-track Love The Holidays are original and fully capture the freewheeling spirit of the Texas-spawned band. The rollicking title track "Love The Holidays," '60s-flavored "I Believe in Santa Claus," cowpunk-tinged alt rocker "Gotta Love Being A Kid" and beautiful countrified folk nugget "Snow Angels" are early standouts on the disc. The world's most famous reindeer gets a new musical chapter courtesy of the colorful "Rudolph Was Blue." The reworked versions of traditional material such as "Auld Lang Syne," "Angels We Have Heard On High," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Up On The Housetop" are equally marvelous, with the quartet using their best instincts to capture the spirit of the originals without abandoning their raw and decidedly raucous approach. Information: old97s.com.
Title: C'est La Vie (Dead Oceans)
Tell me more: Since discovering Phosphorescent at the Stagecoach Festival in 2011, I've been a fan of the genre-blending troupe headed by singer-songwriter Matthew Houck. Now after an extended wait of more than five years (the group's previous album Muchacho was released in March 2013), Phosphorescent is back with their seventh studio album, C'est La Vie. The good news is the long wait was worth it; Phosphorescent's unique approach of crafting luxurious songs that occupy a dreamlike soundscape is fully intact. There are the wistful quiet nuggets ("Christmas Down Under," "These Rocks"), a driving Americana-tinged indie rocker ("Around the Horn") and even a meditative synth pop foray (the title track "C'est La Vie"). Information: PhosphorescentMusic.com.
Artist: Ken Sharp
Title: Beauty in the Backseat
Tell me more: Ken Sharp's fifth LP Beauty in the Backseat mixes up things in all the right ways, unabashed in terms of being forcefully melodic while fused with a heavy dose of Philly soul. Lead-off track "Rock Show" is a splendid mix of soulful gospels, power pop tunefulness, fuzzy guitar textures adorned with a great solo from KISS guitarist Ace Frehley. The driving melodic rocker "Mona Lisa Smile" is pure ear candy. Other sonic delights include the intoxicating "No One Seems to Stay Together Anymore," lovely "Closer" and racing "24 Hours a Day." Sharp is joined by another one of his heroes when Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Oates guests on "Philly Kind of Night." Sharp also pays tribute to several other musical heroes courtesy of the ambitious baroque pop "The Day That David Bowie" died and joyful "I Wanna Be David Cassidy." Information: Ken-Sharp.com.
Artist: Michael Simmons
Title: First Days of Summer (Crab Apple Records)
Tell me more: The Michael Simmons album First Days of Summer captures the spirit of summertime even while creating a sweeping soundscape that means this album will sound great anytime. The lyrics are sharp while the musical chops enhance the enticing melodies; there is just a great positive vibe and freewheeling spirit across the dozen-track run. Simmons' wide-ranging explorations yield a strong crop of great originals and no two sound alike. The soulful "Do Your Best to Care" and explosive "Get Back What You Put In" kick off the full-length album. "No More Girls" is an intoxicating romp that could have been recorded by hitmakers in the '60s; the crunchy pop of "Let's Fall In Love" is one of my favorites on the disc with its mix of Matthew Sweet melodic rock and smart Ric Ocasek styling. "Rudderless Day" is a similarly winning rocker. The lush title track somehow revisits classic Beach Boys territory while sounding completely original. The wonderful baroque-meets-psychedelic "Centre of the Spiral" is a tender and mature look inside a relationship as the best moments of a couple's journey together have passed. Simmons handles most lead vocals and the majority of musical duties on the album with a masterful touch; a few notable guests crop up here and there (including guitarist Robbie Rist, cellist Matthew Carney and lead guitarist Addison Love). Not only are all the songs outstanding and produced perfectly, but the release comes in several wonderful configurations. Information: https://michaelsimmons.bandcamp.com.
Artist: Simple Minds
Title: War Between Worlds (BMG)
Tell me more: Simple Minds returned with yet another masterwork. The Scottish outfit's 2018 album War Between Worlds is bolstered by an amazing collection of songs that are both artful and intoxicating; listeners who connected with 2014's thrilling Big Music will definitely want to pick up War Between Worlds. The material here blends ethereal synthesizers, infectious rhythms, blazing and soaring guitar work (just listen to the fiery "Barrowland Star") and Jim Kerr's signature vocals. Standouts on the disc abound; the electronica-tinged "Magic" and "The Signal and the Noise," driving "Summer" and dreamy "Utopia" showcase a 40-year-old group still focused on the future. Produced by Simple Minds with Andy Wright and Gavin Goldberg, the album is available on standard and deluxe audio CD, standard, deluxe and picture disc vinyl, and digitally, The deluxe edition features three additional tracks, including the sweeping "Silent Kiss" and a reworked cover of the traditional Irish song "Dirty Old Town" featuring Kerr sharing vocals with Sarah Brown. Information: SimpleMinds.com.
Artist: The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Title: Merrie Land (Studio 13)
Tell me more: The second release from The Good, The Bad & The Queen (featuring Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and Clash bassist Paul Simonon) is titled Merrie Land and the recently-issued title also happens to be one of the best new albums of 2018. A deluxe edition of Merrie Land comes as a sensational package featuring a 56-page hardback book with the album on audio CD; the book itself features sheet music, lyrics and cool artwork. While the deluxe edition is wonderful, casual fans can also pick up the album-only release as a single audio CD disc or digital download. Information: TheGoodTheBadAndTheQueen.com.
Artist: Michael Ubaldini
Title: Song Of Our Time (Blackwater Records)
Tell me more: Michael Ubaldini released yet another brilliant full-length album in 2018; the aptly-titled Song Of Our Time features a dozen cuts finely crafted with nothing more than the artist's signature vocals, acoustic guitar and occasional harmonica. The tracks offer probing and penetrating observations of life in a fast-moving world caught in a state of seemingly-endless turmoil. Ubaldini's sound recalls the acoustic approach of legacy masters Bob Dylan and Neil Young but the Southern California troubadour has a strong voice of his own. The title track reflects the timbre of the age with Ubaldini looking around at a world filled with troubles and admitting "There's nothing I can do, but sing a song for you." Make no mistake that while the artist offers an honest assessment of our world there is a hopeful and uplifting resonance in his songcraft that provides comfort and optimism. Ubaldini's musical pen is wide and aside from the sharp political observations (just listen to "A Clean Mind," "Free Speech Blues" and "Teardrops") and personal defeat ("Walkin' Cane Blues") there are songs of love (the Celtic-flavored "Maddie O' Day") and loss ("When The Chips Were Down," "Gambled Away My Woman"). Song Of Our Time delivers on its stark title more fully with every listen. Information: rocknrollpoet.com.
Artist: Danny Wilkerson
Title: Wilkerson (SpyderPop Records)
Tell me more: Listeners hungry for new music that is melodic, intelligent and ambitious almost beyond measure will be floored by Wilkerson, the brilliant debut from singer-songwriter Danny Wilkerson. The sonic ghosts of the Beatles, the Zombies, Jeff Lynne and XTC can be heard but to be sure the songs here are original and performances uniformly inspired. With songs this exceptional it doesn't hurt that Wilkerson is joined by an all-star cast of supporting players including Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (of Jellyfish, Imperial Drag and Beck fame) on keyboards and backing vocals, guitarist Pat Buchanan (Hall & Oates, Cyndi Lauper, Don Henley), multi-instrumentalist Joe Siders (The New Pornographers) and many others. If Jellyfish had teamed with Burt Bacharach it might sound something like the infectious opener "Everybody Loves to Love." The propulsive "Enough For Somebody" is buoyant and exuberant, perfectly capturing the joy of youthful love. Backed only by a string section, Wilkerson's inviting vocals shine on the probing "Endless Haze"; the Beatlesque "When Your Number's Up" puts his masterful talents as songwriter on display. The shimmering "How She Lost My Heart," lofty "Carry The One" and baroque pop "Let It Go Tonight" are late disc standouts. Produced and engineered by bleu, and mastered by Miles Showell at Abbey Road Studios in London, Wilkerson is an amazing debut. Information: spyderpop.com.