Top Southern Spins: Best Albums of 2018

Check out our list of the year’s best records from acts who hail from our Blue Ridge footprint.

Lucy Dacus Historian

This emerging Richmond-based indie rock singer-songwriter sounds more assured than she did on her excellent 2016 debut No Burden. Throughout Historian, Dacus uses swells of strings and emotive horns to add sonic punch to her vivid confessional lyrics, as she wrestles with harsh feelings about breakups (“Addiction”) and spiritual confusion (“Nonbeliever”). The stunner is “Pillar of Truth,” in which she recounts witnessing her grandmother’s final days. In her striking voice, Dacus sings: “I am weak, looking at you/A pillar of truth, turning to dust.”

John Prine Tree of Forgiveness

Now 72, John Prine released his first album of new material back in the spring. While his voice has weathered with age and the effects of cancer treatment, the blue-collar folk bard is still a master of delivering wry, front-porch wisdom. He playfully recognizes that life is finite in “When I get to Heaven,” joking that in the afterlife he’ll be enjoying booze, rock ‘n’ roll, and a cigarette that’s “nine miles long.” He’s more earnest in “Summer’s End,” a wistful ballad about enduring change that features gentle harmony backing vocals from Brandi Carlile.

Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour

In Golden Hour’s mystical acoustic opener, Kacey Musgraves sings “I’m gonna do it my way, it’ll be alright.” For the crystalline-voiced tunesmith, known for bucking Music Row convention with songs about small-town cultural truths and an affinity for weed, that means taking the strum-and-sing twang of her first two records into new territory that she likes to call “galactic country.” That term certainly works for “Oh, What A World,” which features spacey banjo rolls and Musgraves singing dreamily about the intoxication of love, but this album also takes her beyond country. The breezy disco groove of “High Horse” and the sweeping hook of “Velvet Elvis” prove Musgraves has a knack for soul-satisfying pop.

Brent Cobb Providence Canyon

Brent Cobb’s exceptional latest album, Providence Canyon, is full of head-bobbing country-funk that’s raw, rugged, and undeniably authentic. On the title track he takes a nostalgic trip to a favorite natural escape in his native Georgia, and even more poignant is “King of Alabama,” a tribute to a hard-working country singer who died too young. In the gritty Southern rock of “Ain’t a Road Too Long,” Cobb sings in his laid-back conversational tone, “I only do the work that pleases me.” That’s good news for the rest of us.

Amanda Shires To the Sunset

A skilled fiddler, singer-songwriter, and member of her husband Jason Isbell’s band the 400 Unit, Shires decided it was time to bust out of the revivalist Americana mold on her latest album, To the Sunset. Her personal lyrical revelations and powerful country-warble vocals remain familiarly intact, but they’re set among synth-accented pop melodies (“Leave It Alone”), fuzzy garage-rock riffs (“Eve’s Daughter”), and spacey Bowie-minded soundscapes (“Parking Lot Pirouette”). It’s graceful evolution for an artist just starting to get her rightful due.

Kurt Vile Bottle It In

After last year’s stellar collaboration with Courtney Barnett, the Philadelphia-based indie guitar hero is back with the first full-length of his own since 2015. Vile has always exuded chill-dude ambivalence, but throughout the engagingly experimental folk-rock of Bottle It In he offers glimpses into an admittedly anxious mind, albeit with some playful word play and his usual languid drawl. He laments smart-phone dependency in the ethereal meditation “Mutinies,” and during the album’s best song, the 10-minute trippy odyssey “Bassackwards,” Vile distills shaky feelings into short existential phrases (“I was on the ground circa Planet Earth, but out of sorts”) that are delivered with a loping groove, hypnotic finger-picking, and dream-like, effects-laden electric guitar riffs. He’s exorcising universal fears without getting too serious.

American Aquarium Things Change

With a completely new backing band, B.J. Barham sounds fired up and ready to go on the latest effort from his longstanding North Carolina alt-country outfit. Throughout Things Change, Barham uses three chords and the truth—supercharged with plenty of distortion—to deliver full-throttle Southern bar rock anthems written for those feeling disillusioned by the country’s current political climate. He’s clear where he stands in “The World is On Fire,” and offers a call for resilience in “Tough Folks,” singing “Life ain’t fair/Saddle up, boy, and see it through/Tough times don’t last, only tough folks do.”

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