Last year, I wrote (perhaps “whined” would be a better choice) about how much time we spent listening to make this list: 2,566 songs,156 hours of music, a month of normal workdays, doing nothing but listening to music.
I wrote, “Have we gone mad? Batshit, even?”
Turns out the answer was “batshit.”
This year, our methods weren’t so obsessive. But they were still comprehensive, looking across every genre at music made by Southerners and guided by one clear idea:
When we find music that touches our collective desire, as Southerners, to learn about, to understand, and to have empathy for others, that’s a hit in The Bitter Southerner’s book.
That said, we saw the South’s music evolve in meaningful ways in 2018. Music trails culture, it seems, by about a year. In 2016, the whole nation ran headlong into significant change (some would say trauma). We expected musicians to respond, but in 2017 they were just beginning to write songs in reaction. It takes a while to get albums finished and released.
This year, their responses arrived. We heard fierce, angry protest songs coming from all corners — rappers like Atlanta’s J.I.D, punk rockers like North Carolina’s Superchunk, alt-country acts like Will Hoge and American Aquarium, and from genuine pop stars like Janelle Monáe.
But #MeToo provoked the most overwhelming musical reactions. Amazing women, from college age to veterans in their 60s, trained their sights on everything that needed chastising. They tackled societal problems like gun violence and the patriarchy. They put men in their place in ways they (we) could not ignore. They ripped into their own psyches to summon courage and resolution.
The year 2018 was not the year of a particular genre in Southern music. But it was, without question, the year of powerful Southern women. Herewith, our sixth annual, highly opinionated list of the 30 Best Southern Albums of the Year.
— Chuck Reece
Roots: New Orleans, Louisiana. Home: Nashville, Tennessee.
This album, which arrived in late January, is protest music, yes, but of a more fundamental source. For a long time, Gauthier has worked with Texas songwriter Radney Foster’s nonprofit, Songwriting With Soldiers, which does exactly what its name implies: It pairs military veterans and/or their family members with professional songwriters. Their goal is to turn trauma into music, thus bringing healing. Rifles and Rosary Beads marked the first time a Songwriting With Soldiers artist had collected her co-writing with vets into a single album. Like Apocalypse Now, Rifles and Rosary Beads opens with the chuff of helicopter blades and dives into “Soldiering On,” which Gauthier co-wrote with retired Marine Corps. Maj. Jennifer Marino, who logged multiple tours as a CH-46 chopper pilot in Iraq. It begins, “I was bound to something bigger / And more important than a single human life / I wore my uniform with honor / My service was not a sacrifice / But what saves you in the battle / Can kill you at home / A soldier, soldiering on.” By the end of the song, the electric guitars crank up, and you begin to think Gauthier and these noble military familes have honed the old three-chords-and-the truth formula to its purest form.
Our favorite track: “Bullet Holes in the Sky”
Roots and Home: Atlanta, Georgia.
The Atlanta trap music that dominated the Billboard charts this year rarely felt relevant to us. Its ludicrous reliance on the recitation of luxury brand names feels too often like a crutch — just words to fill up space, rather than expressions of the desire to raise one’s economic station in life. I don’t need to hear Offset rapping, “Patek, Patek,” anymore, really. But we were psyched to hear one of trap’s old dogs deliver a great album. Say what you will about T.I., but there’s no doubt his records of the early 2000s defined trap music sonically and, to a great extent, lyrically. Is Dime Trap filled with T.I.’s braggadocio? Hell, yes. The album even has a narrator: comedian Dave Chappelle. This is trap music, after all. But the lyricism comes from the heart of a man who truly made it out of the trap, looking back on a life and career that took him from dealing drugs in Atlanta’s Center Hill neighborhood to the pinnacle of the music business. I’m sure Tip has plenty of Pateks in his watch tray. He just doesn’t say so quite as much anymore. And at the end, he delivers a devastating summation of his life in “Be There (feat. London Jae).” It ends with a spoken word passage. And by “spoken word,” we don’t mean “rapped.” We mean spoken, in Clifford Harris Jr.’s normal speaking voice. It neatly sums up the meaning of trap music for everybody who still doesn’t get it: “You know what they say. What the devil mean for bad, God use it for good, right? Well, I'm sure the people who put crack cocaine in our communities infested us with all this hate, all these guns, all this violence, all this rage. You see, they never counted on us taking those very experiences, packaging them as philosophical presentations set to music about the experiences — and how many people would relate to it and how much commerce would come from it. Yeah, they didn't count on that. Heh! That they dumb ass. It's trap music.”
Our favorite track: “Be There (feat. Anderson.Paak)”
Roots: Fayetteville, North Carolina. Home: Raleigh, North Carolina.
Jermaine Lamarr Cole has ridden high throughout this decade. KOD roared to the top of the Billboard charts on its April release, but there was nothing bubblegum about it. Cole made his intention clear in writer Paul Cantor’s masterful profile in Vulture: “If you exclude the top three rappers in the game, the most popping rappers all are exaggerated versions of black stereotypes. Extremely tatted up. Colorful hair. Flamboyant. Brand names. It’s caricatures, and still the dominant representation of black people, on the most popular entertainment format for black people, period.” In response, on KOD, J. Cole, who grew up with an alcoholic (and now sober) mother, goes straight at the relentless glorification of drug use and the threats of addiction.
Our favorite track: “FRIENDS (feat. kiLL Edward)”
Roots and home: Mobile, Alabama
Abe Partridge ain’t for everybody. His voice, as Tony Paris wrote for us earlier this year, sounds like “three packs a day for 30 years, each butt finished with a shot of whiskey for good measure.” But we think most people in The Bitter Southerner Family would be drawn to the story contained in this album’s epic track, “The Ghosts of Mobile.” Partridge, in a raspy, muffled shout, intones, “The heart of Dixie is in turmoil / Future spoiled, and they can't be saved / No, it ain't hard to find the devil in this town / Because them old gray ghosts won’t stay in the ground / And I wish there was a way to put ’em all down.” The stages of 37-year-old Partridge’s life have included one as an independent, fundamentalist Baptist preacher and a second as an avionics engineer in the Air Force. Now, he paints and plays music, but he says he considers himself more a “communicator” than a songwriter. To end his album, he communicates the hell out of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” the old spiritual first committed to vinyl in 1931 by a South Carolina-born, African-American artist named Blind Joe Taggart.
Our favorite track: “The Ghosts of Mobile”
Roots and home: Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
We will admit to some difficulty in approaching the music of Caleb Caudle objectively because he’s been a vocal supporter of The Bitter Southerner since we began. He performed at a BS party a few years ago. Hell, he’s even sat at our kitchen table to perform on Facebook Live. Still, his 2018 progress is hard to ignore. He recorded Crushed Coins in Los Angeles — a move he says “took me out of my comfort zone.” It is his most ambitious project yet. The addition of organs and synthesizers takes his music into slightly trippier territory, but he never loses the essential sweetness of who he is — a humble Carolina boy who will always cry at funerals. Check out our favorite track to see what we mean.
Our favorite track: “Six Feet From the Flowers”
Roots and home: Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Cedric Burnside was just 13 years old when he became the drummer in his Big Daddy’s band. That would be his grandfather, R.L. Burnside, perhaps the greatest purveyor of those peculiar, Mississippi Hill Country blues. Twenty-seven years later, the mantle of that blues style rests on Cedric’s shoulders. There isn’t an ounce of hyperbole when he sings, “My school was a juke joint from a kid till I was grown, and blues is really all I’ve ever known.” Cedric carries the mantle happily, but on Benton County Relic, he strips the Hill Country blues down to its most basic elements — unorthodox, circular rhythms and hypnotic guitar riffs. Cedric was always a powerhouse drummer, and over the years, he has become just as proficient on the guitar. On this album’s spare songs, we see the lines from this genuinely unique Southern musical style to its roots in West African music. And that’s probably one reason Benton County Relic just snagged a Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional Blues category.
Our favorite track: “Give It to You”
Roots and home: Raleigh, North Carolina
This is the point in our list where protest emerges. But first, a brief story: Back in his Whiskeytown days, Ryan Adams developed a reputation for repeatedly firing band members. But American Aquarium founder B.J. Barham long ago surpassed Adams: Over the last 12 years, about 30 different musicians have been members of American Aquarium. But things have changed a lot for Barham in recent years. He gave up drinking. He released a masterful, lyrically rich solo album, Rockingham, that landed on our list in 2016. He got married, and this year, his family welcomed little Josephine Pearl Barham into the world. Now carrying a load considerably heavier than keeping a hard-drinking rock band together, Barham and his latest lineup delivered Things Change, which begins with the line, “She looked out the window and said, ‘The world’s on fire.” Quickly, it becomes apparent he is describing election night, 2016. “So I packed up my car and went lookin' for answers,” he sings, “to the questions weighin' on my mind. When did the Land of the Free become the Home of the Afraid? Afraid of the world, afraid of the truth, afraid of each other. This ain’t the country my grandfather fought for, but I still see the hate he fought against.” Clearly, Barham was raised right.
Our favorite track: “Tough Folks”
Roots and home: Athens, Georgia.
Rome, Georgia, native Emily Braden embroidered the cover of this band’s debut album, but that should not suggest that what you’ll find inside is delicate and homespun. Braden’s distinct twang overlays the insistent rhythms that have been a constant in Athens music since the early 1980s, and the musical backdrop from bandmates Jack Blauvelt, Merideth Hanscom, and Andrew McFarland is inventive, swerving from the heavy reverb sounds of prog-rock to catchy guitar and bass lines that echo Memphis soul. All of which makes it immensely pleasurable to hear Braden repeatedly declare, “I’m sick and tired of this shit,” on the opening cut. An impressive debut.
Our favorite track: “Wring Me Out”
Roots: Little Rock, Arkansas. Home: Nashville.
Elise Davis may write the occasional song with a certified country star like Maren Morris, but her music sounds nothing like what you’d ever hear on straight country radio. As she turns the one-night-stand narrative on its head in the album’s closer, “Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” what could be rendered as a Texas two-step instead sounds like a Phil Spector production: a reverberating cacophony of guitars and drums. Even on a quieter, finger-picked number such as “Married Young,” her voice is dressed up in echoing washes of strings as she skewers her character’s no-account husband: “Shaggy brown hair and clothes everywhere / How they always smelled like grease / Makin’ $7.25 workin’ drive-through at night / Comin’ home and smokin’ weed.”
Our favorite track: “Don’t Bring Me Flowers”
Roots: Memphis, Tennessee (Lloyd), and Lake Charles, Louisiana (Williams). Home: Somewhere in South Carolina (Lloyd), and Nashville, Tennessee (Williams).
Charles Lloyd is an 80-year-old tenor saxophonist who played with the likes of Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Adderley, and Keith Jarrett back in the 1960s. And he is no stranger to collaboration with musicians from outside the jazz world: He played with both the Doors and the Byrds a half-century ago. This collaboration with Lucinda Williams almost slipped under our radar when it came out in June. Lloyd’s current band, the Marvels, has its jazz bona fides, but with some twists — specifically the inclusion of guitarist Bill Frisell, who for decades has delved into Southern musical traditions for inspiration, and Greg Leisz, the renowned pedal steel player who has backed the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and dozens of others. Half of Vanished Gardens consists of brilliantly accessible jazz compositions and standards such as “Monk’s Mood.” The other brings Williams into the mix with interpretations of four of her songs, including a soaring rendition of “Dust,” from her most recent album. But it’s on their interpretation of the gospel standard “We Have Come Too Far to Turn Around” where Lloyd and Williams seem to weave countless threads of American music into a seamless whole.
Our favorite track: “Dust”
Roots: Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. Home: Nashville, Tennessee.
Ashley McBryde first caught our attention two years ago with her single “Fat and Famous,” perhaps the most vicious takedown of high-school mean girls a misfit could conjure. “I got a Budweiser endorsement / You’re refinancin’ your mortgage / How’s it feel to make those payments? / You got fat and I got famous,” she sang. McBryde uncannily inhabits the spirit of every rebellious kid who tried to get out of a too small Southern town. Listening to Girl Going Nowhere, you get the feeling she could — and might very well — kick your ass. And she’s always willing to get in trouble if the payoff seems worth it. “If you ever get tired of bein' happy, I won't be hard to find at all,” she sings. “I've never wrecked a home, but don't put it past me. If you ever get tired of bein' happy, give me a call.”
Our favorite track: “Tired of Being Happy”
Roots: Franklin, Tennessee. Home: Nashville, Tennessee.
For the last 20 years, Will Hoge has made music in Nashville, building a crowd of fans for his own performances while simultaneously writing songs with and for mainstream country artists. But in the wake of numerous school shootings, Hoge is dog-tired of “thoughts and prayers” and here, he says so directly, with the guitars cranked up until they sound like Molly Hatchet. Hoge has two children who attend the same school where his wife teaches. “Every morning at 7 o'clock, everything I care about in the world goes to one building,” he said when My American Dream was released. “It takes one knucklehead with a gun going into that one building to ruin all that for me.” He directs his rage squarely at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: “Well, another group of kids in a high school dead, but you’re still at your golf course teein' off at 9,” he wails. “People marchin' in the streets tryin' to find a little peace. You sit around spoutin' more bullshit online. I don't believe in the devil, but you might make me go and change my mind.” He also takes on the neo-Confederates among us: “I don't want your stars-and-bars and your blood on my damn hands.” Some might find My American Dream preachy, but others will hear it as a roaring expression of righteous anger.
Our favorite track: “Still a Southern Man”
Roots and home: Atlanta, Georgia.
Trouble — born Mariel Semonte Orr — came onto the Atlanta trap scene seven years ago with a mixtape, but Edgewood, named for the neighborhood where he grew up in Section 8 housing, is his first proper album. Few on the trap scene rap so darkly and effectively about life inside the trap. He has lived the life, and his descriptions of it are so vivid one reviewer remarked he couldn’t tell whether Trouble even wanted to get out of the trap. When our friend, Atlanta writer Gavin Godfrey, interviewed Trouble for The Fader, he wrote, “On the one hand, he’s always been a smart, charming, budding star, one great album away from etching himself into the upper echelon of Atlanta rap stalwarts. On the other hand, when asked about the length of his rap sheet, he often jokes that you can just Google his government name and see for yourself.”
Our favorite track: “Hurt Real Bad”
Roots and home: Boone, North Carolina
If you were looking for a band with openly gay members who could effortlessly mash up folk, hip-hop, and rock and roll into something extraordinary, the first place you’d look would be Boone, North Carolina, right? But frontman Sam Melo, who grew up Pentecostal and for a time was a Christian rapper, and his bandmates prove wrong any stereotypes you might have about Appalachia. Truth is, if you’ve missed RKS until this, their third album, then you will hear music the likes of which you’ve never heard before. Over spare but relentlessly funky backing, Melo sings, “And he's a better kisser than you'd think, Mom / He's a better listener than most / We took pretty pictures by the sea, Mom / Fell in love and sailed off / And when the Son of Man had me in his clutches / The sons of men pulled me to the touch and I loved it.” That would indeed be heady material in a Pentecostal home, but Melo and bandmates make it clear they will not hide their love.
Our favorite track: “Hide”
Roots and home: Nashville, Tennessee
Rayland Baxter has said one of the first records he owned was Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road. Which is not surprising, because his father, Bucky Baxter, played pedal steel on it. But listen to Wide Awake, you won’t hear a single sound — or lyric, for that matter — reminiscent of Mr. Earle. If anything, the model for the sound of Wide Awake is Revolver-era Beatles. From a lyrical standpoint, the adjective that keeps popping to mind is “rascally.” This is particularly true on “Casanova,” which Baxter begins by singing, “Money. All I ever want is money. But I never wanna work for the money. So, I borrowed all the money from a woman.” Turns out the woman he’s talking about is Sallie Mae, and the money is student loans.
Our favorite track: “79 Shiny Revolvers”
Roots and home: Nashville.
Any Liz Phair fans in the house? Phair was 26 years old when her landmark Exile in Guyville was released. That album was a feminist watershed: It made it clear that boys who tried to use girls could have the tables turned on them. Anyone who was affected by Exile will hear strong echoes in the music of Nashville’s Sophie Allison, who records under the name Soccer Mommy. Allison, barely of drinking age, is bold. “I wanna be the one who makes your stomach tied / I wanna make a knot and drag you like a kite,” she sings on one of our favorite tracks, “Skin.” Allison clearly has a head full of haunting melodies, and enough piss and vinegar to shred your typical college dude with her words. It’s a bang-up combination.
Our favorite track: “Your Dog”
Roots: Coral City, Florida. Home: Los Angeles, California.
TA13OO. Taboo. Get it? Denzel Curry is clearly not afraid of breaking taboos, as this album makes abundantly clear. The rap game has always been a little like professional wrestling. The beefs between rappers on social media present us with the choice to root for the good guy or the bad guy. (Last month, Curry actually staged a hometown show in Miami where he performed in a wrestling ring.) TA13OO marks one of the most forceful takedowns yet of the formula that Atlanta trappers have taken to the top of the charts — specifically its “mumble” raps and their glorification of recreational sex and pharmaceutical downers like Percocet and Xanax. Curry raps on “PERCS | PERCZ”: “These dumbass n****s, and they don't say shit / Sound like ‘durr, durr, durr,’ you like, ‘Oh, that's lit’ / With yo' boof ass hits, ‘I'ma f**k yo' b•••h. I just popped two Xans’ / N***a, f**k that shit!” He proceeds to begin each chorus with, “I do not f**k with the percs. I barely f••k with the Earth.” Curry is an environmentalist. I think, in this particular beef, he might be my good guy.
Our favorite track: “SIRENS | Z1RENZ (feat. J.I.D)”
Roots and home: Florence, Alabama.
Every year, music nerds pray there will be at least one “feel-good” record. It needs to sound beautiful, and it needs to envelop you, to make you feel like you’re lying in the ocean surf on a hot summer day. There’s no need for it to be topical, and in fact, it’s usually better if it’s not. It just needs to be a record you can soak in. Tuscumbia was my feel-good record of 2018. Though recorded at FAME Studios, in the same room where Wilson Pickett laid down “Mustang Sally,” there are no echoes of the Muscle Shoals soul sound. Truth is, Belle Adair is to Muscle Shoals as Big Star was to Memphis: the unlikely maker of beautiful pop songs. Matt Green’s songs are presented in arrangements as airy as a shoreline breeze. Adam Morrow lays down the bass and guitars over Reed Watson’s lyrical drumming, and the whole thing is embellished by beautiful keyboard parts from Jonathan Oliphant, with able assistance from Alabama Shakes keys player Ben Tanner. Big Star’s first album came out 46 years ago, and it sounds fresh in every succeeding year. I have a feeling I’ll be playing Tuscumbia until the day I can’t make it to the turntable.
Our favorite track: “Neptune City”
Roots: Memphis, Tennessee. Home: New York, New York.
This record is subtle, and it makes you listen carefully. But if you take the time to do that, you’ll hear a woman sorting through the problems and challenges adult women face. Rosanne Cash has always been capable of writing such finely tuned expressions, and now, in her early 60s, her skills are sharper than ever, and the subject matter at this stage of her life is more substantive. Consider this verse from the powerful “Crossing to Jerusalem”: “Birthdays and the babies / Bourbon and the tears / Roaring like the hurricane / Tearing up the years / Who we are is who we were / And all of you were there / We're crossing to Jerusalem / It's nothing we can't bear.” It’s not easy to sum up 25 years of marriage, five children, and the deep commitment required to hold a family together in just 38 words, but there it is. The only time Cash gets in our face on this record is the remarkable “8 Gods of Harlem,” a pointed anti-gun violence song co-written and performed with Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello. For more on that song and how it came to be, read our recent interview with Cash.
Our favorite track: “Crossing to Jerusalem”
Roots: Maywood, Illinois. Home: Nashville, Tennessee.
Speaking of songwriters who ponder the later chapters of life, national treasure John Prine gave us his first collection of original songs since 2005. The man is now in his 70s, and he’s beaten throat cancer, given up drinking and smoking, and did all that while never losing the sharp, wacky sense of humor that has always leavened even his darker songs. No song displays that more vividly than the album closer, “When I Get to Heaven,” in which Prine declares that when he gets to heaven, “I'm gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale.
Yeah, I'm gonna smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long.” Prine can still slay with only a song title, such as The Tree of Forgiveness’ “The Lonesome Friends of Science.” But as ever, he is at his best, when he dives deep into the emotions of regular folks. There is evidence of that throughout the album, but nowhere is it more potent than on our favorite track.
Our favorite track: “Summer’s End” (and don’t miss the powerful video for the song by Bitter Southerner contributor Elaine McMillian Sheldon)
Roots and home: Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Topicality has never been a hallmark of the great North Carolina punk band Superchunk. But it appears that after 2016, Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance, Jim Wilbur, and Jon Wurster done had enough. From track one, What a Time to Be Alive begins skewering a particular New York City real estate developer without ever naming him. “To see the rot in no disguise / Oh, what a time to be alive / The scum, the shame, the f**king lies / Oh what a time to be alive.” What a time indeed. Throughout this album, Wurster’s expert, double-time beats anchoring the screaming guitars and shouted harmonies. It’s political punk rock in the grandest tradition, music that allows you to stomp around your room and scream your rage at the world. Which is something even adults have needed the last couple of years. The Chunk still rules.
Our favorite track: “Break the Glass”
Roots and home: Atlanta, Georgia.
If you’ve never listened to the raps of J.I.D — born Destin Choice Route in Atlanta in 1990 — you will first marvel at his sheer verbal skills. J.I.D raps like a machine gun, and we mean this literally: An AK-47 fires at a rate of 600 rounds a minute. J.I.D delivers the first verse of “Slick Talk” at a rate of 544 words a minute. We actually timed it. That’s a smidge faster than nine words a minute. But the reason we think this is the ATL’s best hip-hop record of the year are the messages underneath. Like Denzel Curry, J.I.D challenges the endemic issues facing Atlanta trap music, but does so from a hometown perspective. “I'm from East Atlanta like Gucci and Travis Porter,” he raps, “but my story is similar to the hare and the tortoise.” And on “Off the Zoinkys,” he waves the caution flag about the scene’s obsession with drugs. “Y'all n****s need to lay off the drugs / Some of y'all need to lay off the dope / My n****s gettin' it straight off the boat / Pure cut, put it straight to your nose / I ain't nosy, but I know what I know.” DiCaprio 2 feels like the deepest look of the year inside the heart of a rapper.
Our favorite track: “Workin’ Out”
Roots: Kennet, Missouri (Johnson), and Greenwood, Arkansas (Kinkel-Shuster). Current home: Austin, Texas (Johnson), and Fayetteville, Arkansas (Shuster).
Marie/Lepanto, named for an exit sign on Interstate 55 in Arkansas, pairs Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster of Mississippi's Water Liars and Will Johnson, leader of the late, great Centro-Matic of Denton, Texas. Tenkiller displays the skillful songcraft of both men. Alternating between the lo-fi folk of Kinkel-Schuster's recent solo work and a distorted indie rock that recalls Johnson's work in Centro-Matic, the album finds their two voices shadowing one another, with Johnson’s battered vocals and Kinkel-Schuster’s wavering tenor complementing one another. In Centro-Matic’s heyday, one would often see their fans wearing T-shirts that said, “Centro-Matic is better than your favorite band.” Those same folks will hear Marie/Lepanto and be happy.
Our favorite track: “Inverness”
Roots: Martin County, Kentucky (Presley), Knoxville, Tennessee (Monroe), and Lindale, Texas (Lambert). Home: Nashville, Tennessee
Yes, this trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angeleena Presley (whose solo album Wrangled landed at No. 2 on our list last year) is a “mainstream country” act that sells Tens of thousands of records. It is also true “mainstream country” albums rarely wind up on this list. That’s because “mainstream country” records these days typically come from good ol’ boys whose primary lyrical concerns are beer, women in Daisy Dukes, and trucks and some more beer. It’s a pretty shallow pond to wade in, and we all should be grateful that these three badass women team up to make it deeper. They do not hold back. “God, he looks handsome in the bright morning light,” Monroe sings. “His smile can light up your world for a while / His love is enough to keep me satisfied / I said that too when I was his wife.” “Got My Name Changed Back” is a Texas-style rocker celebrating the liberation of divorce: “How to win when you play the fool / That's somethin' they don't teach in school / I played to win, lookin' back is funny / I broke his heart, and I took his money.” But in typical Southern fashion, they are at their most touching when they sing about Mama. The album closer, “Milkman,” finds all three lamenting a mother who “never made it past the water tower” because “Mama never did have nothin’ but Daddy and me.”
Our favorite track: “Milkman”
Roots and home: Oxford, Mississippi.
The title of this Water Liars veteran’s second solo album was “just something that popped into my head,” Bryant told Oxford’s The Local Voice “Everything that happens seems to be things we make happen, but do you blame God? Do you blame existence? The idea is to not blame anyone and say, ain’t it like the cosmos? Sort of giving that up and just accepting how it is and saying, this is fine.” That kind of thinking is a sure sign of adulthood, and Cosmos finds Bryant thinking about a host of adult topics — adjusting to parenthood, the need to settle accounts both financial and emotional, commitment, how to be content with what one has instead of what one wants. In the process, he creates the Most Southern Lyric of the entire year: “Lord, ain’t it bittersweet, this place we call our home? Ain’t it like the cosmos to light up the magnolias at dawn?”
Our favorite track: “Robert Downey Jr.’s Scars”
Roots: Birmingham, Alabama. Home: Atlanta, Georgia.
When Natalie Baszile, the author of Queen Sugar, profiled the Alabama-born folk artist and musician Lonnie Holley for us about the time MITH came out, she wrote, “Spend a little time with Lonnie Holley, and you start to see the world differently. You slip into a dream state, a place where objects have a force and undeniable power. A place where everything and everyone is electrified, energized, and connected.” This album brings her conclusion to powerful life. I will personally guarantee you have never heard anything like MITH. In case you didn't read Baszile’s story, Holley was stolen from his mother and beaten in an Alabama work camp by the time he was 11 years old. Then, he found salvation in things the rest of us throw away — making art from found objects — and saw his works go into the collections of major museums. Holley’s music is similar, but instead of objects, he’s working with the ideas and melodies inside his head. On this album, Holley is paired with musicians Who seem remarkably capable of creating sonic environments to surround all those ideas. The highlight of the album is an 18-minute epic called “I Snuck off the Slave Ship,” in which Holley pictures himself on the African shore, watching ships arrive: “Ship after ship after ship, sailing in / Standing in wonder / Standing there / Watching the capture of my body.” He makes the historical personal, and by doing that, he makes it possible for the rest of us to see America’s dreams and dilemmas through a different lens.
Our favorite track: “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship”
Roots: Golden, Texas. Home: Nashville, Tennessee.
From the get-go, Kacey Musgraves had a way of capturing compact but cutting little word pictures of Southern small-town life. She begins Golden Hour with another one: “Born in a hurry, always late / Haven't been early since ’88 / Texas is hot, I can be cold / Grandma cried when I pierced my nose.” But on this album, her ambitions stretch farther than cleverly written country songs. Musically, this record takes on a shiny pop sheen, even adventuring into disco with “High Horse.” Having spent my youth as a disco hater and punk-rock lover, my immediate reaction was a little sour. Now, I want to hear “High Horse” over and over. Giddy-up, giddy-up. Her lyrics look at love (she’s newly married), family and pain, as always, but this album is dressed up to be more than that — and in all the right ways. Maybe the most important idea is the one we heard from our partner Kyle Tibbs-Jones, who said, “This is a record that brought millions of women joy, and we needed it.”
Our favorite track: “Slow Burn”
Roots: Norfolk, Virginia. Home: Richmond, Virginia.
A 23-year-old Virginian wrote one of the most poetic song lyrics of the year. “Your hands are folded / Your eyes are closing / Your words are broken / Your eyes are dry / I am weak looking at you / A pillar of truth, turning to dust.” That song, inspired by Lucy Dacus’ trip to Mississippi to be with her grandmother as she died, is the penultimate number on an album that swings dramatically from hushed pensiveness to roars of emotion (and electric guitars) — typically within the same song. Dacus’s method seems to be to set the melody and lyrical story up quietly, then to let the power of her emotions — and the volume — build slowly. The guitars crank up, brass instruments and orchestral strings rise to meet them, And by the end of the song she’s shouting to the missing grandmother, “My soul screams out for you!” Her sharp-eyed lyric writing, combined with her almost perfect sense of music’s emotional dynamics, turn Historian into a record that will stand the test of time.
Our favorite track: “Night Shift”
Roots: Memphis, Tennessee (Baker). Norfolk, Virginia (Dacus), and Pasadena, California (Bridgers).
This year marks the first time any musician has shown up on more than one of the records in our Top 30. Lucy Dacus teamed up with two other immensely talented Women — Memphis’ Julien Baker and Californian Phoebe Bridgers — to form Boygenius. Though all three are young – Bridgers is 24, Baker and Dacus both 23 – they’ve been making music long enough to know first-hand about the gender bias a young woman in the industry often faces. That’s how the name Boygenius came to be. Bridgers told The Los Angeles Times the name “is sort of a shorthand to describe the attitude of the entitled creative male, who, either realizing or not realizing, takes up all the space in the room.” But the trio’s stunning vocal harmonies, all by themselves, would quickly cut any “entitled creative male” who entered the studio with them to shreds. Though they never met each other until they were all on the road as touring musicians, their harmonies sound so close they could be sisters. Boygenius’ debut contains only six songs, but every one, at least to my ears, is perfect. We should all hope they come together again.
Our favorite track: “Ketchum, ID”
Roots: Kansas City, Kansas. Home: Atlanta, Georgia.
If the two secret weapons in Southern music this year were the power of women and the power of protest, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer is the one record that entwines both fully. It is the most magnificent Monáe has ever produced — and genuinely one of the greatest American pop records of this decade. On first listen, when the album arrived in April, I felt the same elation every Prince album of the early 1980s gave me — the knowledge that you now owned a record to shake every rump at your party while making your guests think a little, too. (Before his death, Prince had worked with Monáe on this album.) Throughout Dirty Computer, Monáe asserts the power and worth of women and black people. She makes it clear on song two — “Crazy, Classic, Life”: “We don't need another ruler / All of my friends are kings / I'm not America's nightmare / I am the American dream.” One minute, she’s cutting, rapping that if the trifling men don’t behave, “we gon' start a motherf**kin' pussy riot, or we gon' have to put 'em on a pussy diet.” The next minute, she is inspiring us, calling fans to their better selves. The album ends with the stunning “Americans,” a joyous, swelling anthem that claims our country not just for the few, but for everyone. Southern musicians gave us a host of wonderful records this year, but none was as important as Dirty Computer.
Our favorite track: “Americans”