2018: Rock On. If You Can Find It.

by Benjamin Ray

After preparing this list of the best rock albums of 2018, I scoped out some other year end best-of lists out of curiosity. I scanned, and I scoped, and I hunted, and nowhere was rock ‘n’ roll to be found on these lists. There’s pop, rap, R&B, electronica, a little country, but almost no rock. I suppose this was coming eventually, and surely there is no shortage of “Rock Is Dead” essays from millennials, but I refuse to give up. The genre is worthy and plenty of artists are making vital, pulse-racing, thoughtful music with guitars.

This list, as usual, will look back at my take on the 10 best albums of the year, with a handful of notable releases to check out and a few disappointments mentioned as well. Grab a pick, a coffee, and enjoy.


10. Smokescreens -- Used  To Yesterday

The lost jangle-pop album of the ‘80s has been found! With an evident love for early R.E.M. and Siouxsie And The Banshees, the second Smokescreens album boasts an indie rock sensibility in its 10-song, half-hour run time. Yet the overall feeling is of inviting warmth and not coolness or punk detachment, especially the second half of the disc.


9. Thee Oh Sees -- Smote Reverser

Acid jazz prog metal classic rock, I suppose, is the only way to describe this album. Smote Reverser is fascinating and intoxicating, moving from space rock jams like “Flies Bump Against The Glass” to ear-bleeding rockers like “Overthrown” to pulse-racing tracks like “Last Peace.” Sometimes the tracks are far too indulgent (“Anthemic Aggressor,” a wasted 12 minutes of fusion jazz), but the band continues to surprise and subvert. Check it out.


8. Joe Bonamassa -- Redemption

I cited Blues Of Desperation as the best album of 2016 and so had high hopes for this one, but it didn’t quite live up. I suppose much of that is due to the turmoil in Joe’s love life, which informs the song cycle here that inevitably follows a breakup. You’d think that would make for a classic blues record, but the songs sometimes tread water; my guess is that Joe poured his heart into the lyrics and listened to his favorite albums for inspiration. But when the album hits, it’s a gas; crank up “Molly-O,” “King Bee Shakedown,” and then turn it down and reflect on “Stronger Now In Broken Places,” the most vulnerable Joe has ever been on record.


7. Major Murphy -- #1

Ever wonder what a ‘60s pop band would sound like if they tried to write a Blur-meets-Foreigner song? I did, and I found a brisk, sunny, hazy indie-pop disc from a Michigan trio offering up their debut album. It’s not party music, but for a leisurely twilight listen, it does quite nicely. To their credit, Major Murphy recorded most of the album live and took the time to write lyrics that meld elements of anxiety, faith and self-doubt. Heady stuff for a pop album, but this band has some depth. Check out “Radi-Yum,” and then put these guys on your radar.


6. Joe Satriani -- What Happens Next?

Remember Joe Satriani? Pepperidge Farm remembers. After some space-rock albums that didn’t fare well, Satch returned to Earth with a face-melting power trio, bringing his guitar thunder along with Chad Smith’s drums (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Glenn Hughes’ bass (Deep Purple). The album is lean hard rock; listen to “Energy,” “Catbot,” and “Headrush” and then go check your pulse. Not one vocal graces this disc, which is fine with me, since Satch’s guitar does all the lyrical work. It’s just a very good, intense guitar rock album that we all need at some point.


5. Black Stone Cherry -- Family Tree

Southern rock albums are always a good time, great music to crank up in your garage or backyard while having a beer or pulled pork. Family Tree is another strong entry in the genre, a heavy, hooky album that is a lot of fun but without cliché. That says a lot for a genre that can traffic in them and that shares DNA with the dreaded bro-country, and it’s because Chris Robinson wants to be himself and stay true to his roots and his family. These guys love the stage, they love to play, and it’s hard to say no…so why bother? Kick back and enjoy.


4. Leon Bridges -- Good Thing

Ditching the reliance on retro sounds, Leon Bridges’ second album finds the artist taking what he’s learned and pushing forward with it. “Bad Bad News” is a slam dunk classic, a cool cat strut about self-confidence in the face of negativity, while “Forgive You,” “If It Feels Good,” and “Georgia To Texas” are all warm, immediate and sound like you’ve heard them, even though you have not. If we can’t have Marvin Gaye anymore, at least we have Leon Bridges now.


3. Doyle Bramhall II -- Shades

More known as a sideman than a performer, it’s a big deal when Bramhall releases an album, and Shades warrants it. In addition to writing, singing and playing guitar, drums and bass on most of the album, Brahmall invites Eric Clapton, Norah Jones and the Tedeschi Trucks band to stop by and jam. It’s a labor of love, but not an indulgent or fussy one, emphasizing a vibe over guitar heroics. In addition, Bramahll doesn’t opt for the white-guy-plays-the-blues part but opts for a soul and Southern-fried approach to his blues-rock while also making room for some experimentation in a classic sound. Strong, compelling and approachable, Shades is a rewarding album.


2. Decemberists -- I’ll Be Your Girl

The most non-Decemberists sounding album ever isn’t a radical shift as much as a melding of new wave and pop-rock into the band’s trademark old-timey sound. The pairing works well, giving new life to the band’s sound on tracks like “Cutting Stone” and “Tripping Along” and the very good “Your Ghost,” a galloping alt-rock track that more people should hear. The catchy, creepy “Severed,” the Iggy Pop-pastiche “We All Die Young,” and the story-song “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes,” about the only time Colin Meloy dips back into their 2006-era sound. The end result is the band’s best work in a decade.


1. The Pineapple Thief -- Dissolution

Perhaps an odd choice for the best album of the year, but Dissolution to me was a triumph in several ways. It’s somber and dramatic, a powerful piece of neo-prog-rock with an indie spirit. The songs are uniformly strong, from the harmony of “Far Below” to the magnetic “Try As I Might” to the instant classic “Threatening War,” the best song of the band’s existence. Newcomer Gavin Harrison (drummer for King Crimson and Porcupine Tree) revitalizes the sound here, working with Bruce Soord to write an album with gravity. The lyrics then push it over the top with a concept about how being “connected” isn’t the same as being connected, about how those Facebook likes and comments or retweets are not the same as genuine human interaction. That may sound obvious or cliché, but it’s not what most of us believe in 2018, such is the power social media has over us and the way in which it can ruin relationships. With powerful, memorable music and immediate, relevant lyrics, played by a newly-invigorated band, Dissolution is a remarkable disc.

Honorable Mention

Voivod -- The Wake
The longtime Canadian doom rockers returned after five years and the loss of a key member with a solid concept prog-metal effort, pushing the classic sound into a new direction where thrash, punk, Sabbath-inspired rock and a hint of jazz and prog meet. It’s not for everyone, but it’s pretty darn good.

Moby -- Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt
After two punk albums, Moby returned to his electronica roots, opting for a reflective, somber mood that’s more like a tone poem than a collection of songs. It’s kind of like an Oscar nominee for best picture in that it’s serious, longer than it needs to be, grand but not grandiose, dark but not hopeless, fragile but not drifting, and always easier to admire than to actually love of reach for. But it captures a moment in time and a weight of emotion that will get to you at some point.

Stone Temple Pilots -- Stone Temple Pilots
You want this album to sound like classic STP. It doesn’t, and it never would. It sounds like the continued evolution of the band’s sound in place over the last few albums. Jeff Gutt ably fills Scott Weiland’s frontman role, never overshadowing but never shrinking, and the album grows on the listener with each album. In particular, “Roll Me Under,” “Never Enough,” “Six Eight,” and “Finest Hour” can stand with any STP cut from 1997 on. The disc may be low-key, but it has a robust sound and a beating heart, the sound of a band moving on after losing a brother.

The Aaron Clift Experiment -- If All Goes Wrong
The most fully-realized work yet from this Texas band, the album finds the band reining in its prog tendencies a bit and replacing them with a harder rock edge. More tellingly, the guys have honed their stage act and show a more natural chemistry in the playing and songwriting. There is a lot to unpack here, especially on the epics “Absent Lovers” and the title cut, as well as the very good “Last Crash.” These guys deserve some exposure.

Alice In Chains -- Rainier Fog
I kind of assumed after the dismal The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here that the new incarnation of AIC would call it a day, but not only did they return with a third album, they fired back with a very good one…so good, it earned a Grammy nomination (for whatever that’s worth). The power chords churn, the vocal harmonies are strong, the songwriting is strong throughout (“So Far Under,” “Never Fade,” “The One You Know,” “Fly”). Jerry Cantrell never forgets to bring the melody to the riffs, though, and the album is worthy of the AIC name.


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- Wrong Creatures
Personal issues informed the making of this album, but even if its songs are cathartic for the creators, they don’t translate to the listeners. This band is capable of much more than this gray, noisy effort. One exception: “Echo,” the lone song that leaves a mark.

Dave Matthews Band -- Come Tomorrow
The DMB and its fans have grown up, but we didn’t really want to be reminded of that. The disc is nearly all DMB-by-numbers, but without the spark or instrumental interplay of better albums. Parents will sympathize with the sentiments of “Virginia In The Rain,” and “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” and “She” shows some grit on an album that could use more of it, but these are exceptions. Of note: Avoid “That Girl Is You” like the plague, I beg you.

Smashing Pumpkins -- Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol. 1 LP: No Past, No Future, No Sun
The title is nearly as long as the album, a half-hour effort that sporadically recalls classic Pumpkins. A reunion album should have more to offer than eight three-minute songs, three of which are quite good, which makes you wonder why they bothered if this is all they had in mind. Listen if you must to “Solara” and “Silvery Sometimes,” but prepare to be underwhelmed by the rest.

The 1975 -- A Brief History Into Online Relationships
A couple year-end lists will put this one on there, but the disc takes The 1975 further away from their roots and from the highlights of their previous album. It tries to be pop, R&B, Autotune, electronica, whatever the kids like, and its fragmented nature and thematic content perfectly fits into the social media era. But it’s not meant to last, and it doesn’t.

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