Why move on to the future when you can still obsess over the past?
Early January is the deader-than-a-doornail time of the year in pop music, the rare couple of weeks in an otherwise unending entertainment cycle when there’s next to nothing going on.
That’ll change soon enough: Kacey Musgraves is playing the Fillmore Jan. 18, Steve Gunn and Sharon Van Etten release new albums that same day, and the Wu Tang Clan play the Franklin Music Hall on Jan. 24 and 25.
But before we get back on the treadmill, I’m making one more list.
This exercise started names popping in my head. Albums that I liked a lot early in 2018 but had completely forgotten about when year-end time rolled around. Artists who annoyingly released their music too late to meet Top Ten deadlines. Bands that I had never heard of until they started showing up on other people’s roundups.
Here then, is one final list of worthies that didn’t get as much attention as deserved from me and/or the world at large. And after this, enough with last year’s music: On to 2019!
Noname, Room 25. Let’s start with Fatima Warner, the rapper who goes by the anonymous sobriquet Noname. In September, she released Room 25, the jazzy, discursive, and sophisticated follow-up to her 2016 mixtape Telefone. Noname got her start in Chicago, arriving under the wing of Chance the Rapper after beginning in the spoken-word/poetry community that also acted as a springboard for Jamila Woods and Saba, the Windy City rapper who’s Care for Me was another 2018 standout.
Room 25 got a little lost in the shuffle at the time of its release. (I’m blaming my post-Made in America festival hangover for not paying heed.) But the album earned plenty of accolades for its personalized style of what Warner calls “lullaby rap” that is on display in the video for the song “Blaxploitation,” which features a giant infant thundering through the streets of Chicago. Noname released the new track “Song 21″ last week, and she plays a sold-out show at Union Transfer on Saturday.
Tracey Thorn, Sister. I reviewed Sister, the terrific solo album by Everything but the Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn, when it came out in March but it completely slipped my mind until I saw it atop Fresh Air (and former Inquirer) critic Ken Tucker’s Top Ten list. “Dang!” he said, slapping his forehead. “I forgot all about that one.”
The 56-year-old Thorn has always been a great singer, the rare song interpreter you can hear think even as she navigates beats directed toward the dance floor. Sister follows her fabulous 2012 Christmas album, Tinsel & Lights, and it’s a deeply personal album that peaks with its statement-of solidarity title cut featuring Corinne Bailey Rae, which opens with a “Don’t mess with me” when-push-comes-to-shove warning: “I fight like a girl.”
Colter Wall, Songs of the Plains. Fetishizing old timey cowboy cliches is a common pitfall for authenticity-seeking Americana artists, and Colter Wall goes whole hog with song titles like “Saskatchewan in 1881” and “Wild Bill Hickok.” But all it takes is the sound of the country troubadour’s remarkable voice to make any skepticism fall away. Wall is from the Canadian high plains province of Saskatchewan, and he sounds like he was born riding a horse at the bottom of a deep, dark well. Remarkably, he’s only 23, though the lanky cowpoke sings in a gravitas-oozing baritone that recalls such totemic figures as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
Jupiter & Okwess, Kin Sonic. The second album from songwriter and bandleader Jupiter Bokondji exuberantly mixes rock and Western pop influences with Afrobeat rhythms from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the band is based. Kin Sonic is not quite so irresistibly energetic as the band’s sets at the Xponential Music Festival and at a spectacular if sparsely attended performance at MilkBoy Philly over the summer, but it’s still pretty great.
Ashley Monroe, Sparrow. Ashley Monroe must be used to being overshadowed. The Knoxville, Tenn., native’s biggest chart success was on a 2014 duet of “Lonely Tonight” chiefly credited to Blake Shelton, then husband of Miranda Lambert, Monroe’s good friend, who’s also a much bigger mainstream country star than she is.
Sparrow is Monroe’s third consecutive superb album since Like a Rose in 2013, and it similarly straddles country and pop like Kacey Musgrave’s celebrated Golden Hour. But Monroe’s solo effort had a hard time getting a hearing, especially after the release in the fall of Interstate Gospel by the Pistol Annies, the supergroup she’s in with Lambert and Angaleena Presley.
boygenius, boygenius. Speaking of supergroups made up entirely of women, there’s boygenius, the trio of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Phoebe Bridgers, whose clever name mocks male indie rock hegemony. boygenius is a six-song EP, and it might have evaded some Philadelphians' attention because the band’s tour supporting it never made it to town. It’s not the strongest, fully realized release to come from one of these ace songwriters this year: That would be Dacus’ early 2018 release Historian. But it is an impressively polished get-together that hopefully will prove to be more than a one-off.
Deadfellow, Millennials in Love (& Other Pre-Apocalyptic Standards). Deadfellow is Philadelphia songwriter Hayden Sammak, and this promising collection recorded with Butcher Brother Phil Nicolo positions him as a brooding balladeer who both rocks out with high drama on “Amphetamine Salts” and moves to the piano to convey real tenderness with telling detail on the generational love song that gives this seven-song set its title.
Adrianne Lenker, abysskiss. A gorgeous acoustic record from the lead singer and songwriter of the band Big Thief. Lenker finger-picks her guitar and is almost entirely solo in songs that drift and float and transfix, lost in daydreams about love and death with a delicacy that conjures up forebears like Nick Drake and Mississippi John Hurt.
Mary Gauthier, Rifles and Rosary Beads. Country music song-making is often about collaboration: Two writers sitting in a room, working out a hit to be sung by somebody else. Rifles and Rosary Beads takes that approach with an inspired twist, teaming Gauthier with military veterans and their spouses whom she met through a program called SongwritingWith:Soldiers. Gauthier has always written with poignancy and precision; here, she takes great care in telling other people’s stories and delivers an album with noble intentions that also succeeds artistically.
The Beths, Future Me Hates Me. There’s much fun to be had on Future Me Hates Me, the debut album by the Beths, the Auckland trio fronted by songwriter Elizabeth Stokes. For indie rock contextualization, put the Beths in the noble jangle and drone lineage of New Zealand predecessors the Clean and the Chills (the latter of whom make a rare Philadelphia appearance at Kung Fu Necktie on Feb. 23). But Stokes is very much her own woman, whether borrowing titles from Billy Joel on the frenetic “Uptown Girl,” chronicling her mood swings on “Happy Unhappy,” or predicting that her middle-age self wouldn’t approve of her current behavior on the title song.