Best Albums of 2018 … So Far
The year has already brought more than its fair share of reunions and comebacks. But our list of the Best Albums of 2018 ... So Far also makes room for a string of releases that build on sturdy reputations. After all, always-active bands like Judas Priest, Blackberry Smoke and Joe Satriani haven't exactly been resting on their considerable laurels lately.
Elsewhere in this alphabetical list of the Best Albums of 2018 ... So Far, we delve into rare solo projects by the likes of Roger Daltrey and David Byrne, left-turn records by Jack White, the Melvins and Arctic Monkeys, and the grease-popping joys of Delta Deep and Van Morrison. Ghost, Corrosion of Conformity and Sleep provide a metal foundation, while Stone Temple Pilots set a new career course. And that's just the beginning.
Here's a look at the Best Albums of 2018 ... So Far, listed in alphabetical order.
Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Even before it was released, Arctic Monkeys guitarist Jamie Cook revealed that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was "not typically what we'd do." He wasn't kidding. The band's first release since 2013 made good on the title of their celebrated 2006 debut (Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not), utterly subverting every indie-rock expectation that's grown up around them. Frontman Alex Turner admitted, at one point, that he didn't think he could make another Arctic Monkeys album, turning instead to a side project, the Last Shadow Puppets. Cook convinced him to return, and they completed one of the most divisive – but ultimately intriguing – albums of the year.
Blackberry Smoke - Find a Light
There was always a little – okay, a lot – of Lynyrd Skynyrd embedded in the DNA of this band, so when Blackberry Smoke galloped into an overt tribute like "I'll Keep Ramblin'," it did more than make perfect sense. It completed a circle. Of course, there's more to Blackberry Smoke. Find a Light stirs in a little Allman Brothers Band, maybe some Crosby, Stills and Nash, certainly some Tom Petty. They make it all their own by turning up the country influences those classic-rock greats always boasted, then complete things with a modern album-length theme relating to perseverance through hard times.
David Byrne - American Utopia
Credit David Byrne with plenty of risk-taking on an album that started out in the familiar environs of a collaboration with Brian Eno. A lot of it works, some of it doesn't. If there is a principal complaint to be made, it's that Byrne occasionally out-thinks himself, and those moments risk weighing down the smart observations that drive American Utopia along. (Byrne sort of cops to it on his closing song, titled "Here," when he sings, "Here is something we call elucidation / Is it the truth? Or merely a description?") But when American Utopia clicks, as in the delightfully angular, determinedly optimistic "Everybody's Coming to My House," it's everything you'd like a David Byrne album to be.
Corrosion of Conformity - No Cross No Crown
Pepper Kennan is back after years of focusing on Down, and Corrosion of Conformity revert to the gothic grooves of 1996's Wiseblood and 1994's Deliverance. Maybe that's no surprise, but this is: Rather than sticking with the often-thematic, overtly political approach of old, Corrosion of Conformity instead tend toward more universal themes that seek to unite, rather than divide us. (That, Kennan has said, it what sparked the album title.) The result is both a respectable return to form, and an interesting new direction, for the standard bearers of Southern metal.
Roger Daltrey - As Long As I Have You
At 74, Roger Daltrey's voice has predictably aged. Unleashing that CSI: Miami scream for a few decades will do that. But the kind of songs he sang when the Who were first starting out – or, in the case of Garnet Mimms' title track for As Long as I Have You, during his pre-Who days in the High Numbers – are actually perfectly suited for his vocal instrument right now. That gives this first solo album in a quarter century an unexpected gravitas. Bonus for Who fans: Pete Townshend joins in on guitar for six of this project's 11 songs.
Ray Davies - Our Country: Americana Act II
Ray Davies' well-documented thrall with the U.S. continued to deepen, even as it found new complexity on the 2017 U.K. Top 20 album Americana. He keeps digging here, picking at old scabs (including his scary encounter with a mugger in 2004) but also exploring the promise that this country still offers. Like most sequels, it's not quite the equal of what came before. In fact, the album's best lyric – All life we work but work is bore / If life's for livin' what's livin' for? – comes from a redo of a Kinks song from 1971. Still, that doesn't speak so much to the relative quality of Our Country: Americana Act II as to a towering legacy that he has to wrestle with every day.
The Dead Daisies - Burn It Down
The lineups change (Brian Tichy is out, Deen Castronovo is in), but the Dead Daisies continue to churn out solid-state material for fans of rock's most familiar sounds. Only guitarist David Lowy remains from their earliest days, and that usually dooms a young band. Yet these guys haven't slowed down a bit: Burn It Down marks the fourth studio album from the Dead Daisies in just five years. They've also put out two EPs and a live album, and it all somehow remained of a piece. Burn It Down is no different, as singer John Corabi helps the Dead Daisies put their own sturdy spin on the styles and attitude of the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin.
Dean Ween - Rock2
Dean Ween seems to have set a creative blaze since the brief demise of Ween. He quickly formed the Dean Ween Group, and set about writing as many as two songs a day, he said. Rock2 bears that out. Not only is this Dean's second studio project in as many years, the album is comprised of thoughts and songs from a single season in the fall of 2016. He's also opened up some, musically: The Deaner Album tended to feel like a true solo debut, while Rock2 benefits from a having a more lived-in, group-focused feel. What remains: Dean Ween's winking, perverse sense of humor and his eye-popping, Zappa-esque approach to the guitar. That led to an album with a raggedy, funky, funny sound that draws a far more direct line back to Ween.
Delta Deep - East Coast Live
On one level, this band makes no sense. Edgy Def Leppard riffs, grungy Stone Temple Pilots bass lines and the rootsy vocals of Debbi Blackwell-Cook shouldn't work. But somehow it did. East Coast Live actually amps up the nascent fission of the band's 2015 debut studio album considerably, as guitarist Phil Collen, bassist Robert DeLeo, ace Memphis drummer Forrest Robinson and Cook veer more deeply from tried-and-true muddy swamp-blues into something approaching funk metal. Recording live at Daryl's House Club in Pawling, N.Y., Cook tells the audience, "We wanna see movement! We wanna see attitude! We wanna see fun." Mission accomplished.
Ghost - Prequelle
Part Catholic-themed cosplay, part Tobias Forge solo project, Ghost have quickly become known for their one-of-a-kind mixture of rock opera-style theatrics, hair metal-esque riffage, proggy pretensions and goofball psychedelia. Then came a weird period of identity-revealing legal issues. That didn't exactly set the stage for a happy-go-lucky studio project, but Forge hinted at what was to come when he shifted from the character of Papa Emeritus to Cardinal Copia. An invitingly dark brand of humor runs through Prequelle, much of which is set during the Black Plague era, and that ends up giving Ghost a refreshing new depth.
Judas Priest - Firepower
In the midst of a season of change, Judas Priest somehow kept going. Rob Halford has lost some of the air-siren power that fired their best albums. Producer Tom Allom, there for the band's breakthrough, returns but with notable, very modern assists from Andy Sneap ... who, in turn, has taken over for guitarist Glenn Tipton, who left everyday service in the band as he continues a decade-long battle with Parkinson's disease. Yet, Judas Priest regained some momentum with the 2011 addition of Richie Faulkner; here, they seem to have taken on the sharp focus of singer Halford's work away from the band in '90s too. At 14, there are still too many tracks. Even so, Firepower might just be the heaviest, no-nonsense thing they'd done since 1990's Painkiller.
Melvins - Pinkus Abortion Technician
Melvins haven't changed their slab-heavy musical focus; instead, more recently, they've brought in a series of intriguing collaborators to add new wrinkles to Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover's reliably pulverizing sounds. Here, Melvins bassist Steve McDonald is joined by Jeff Pinkus, who rose to fame with the Butthole Surfers. That informs everything from the song selection to the album title, which references Pinkus' first album with the Surfers. The bassist wrote or co-wrote four of the songs on Pinkus Abortion Technician; two other songs are Butthole Surfers covers. The results tend to feel more like a one-off jam session – there's a Beatles cover too, for some reason – rather than a proper album. But that doesn't mean it's not a whole lot of fun.
Monster Magnet - Mindfucker
Monster Magnet's determinedly big-sounding Mindfucker is light years away from the melancholic feel of 2013's Last Patrol, which had many wondering if Dave Wyndorf was preparing to call it quits. It also makes good on his more recent backward glances, including 2014's Milking the Stars (which re-imagined Last Patrol) and 2015's Cobras and Fire (which did the same for Mastermind). Monster Mash was clearly going for a crowd-pleasing stoner-rock homecoming, something clearly linked to earlier glories, and they succeeded.
Van Morrison - You're Driving Me Crazy
Van Morrison's third album in a matter of months – following the bluesy Roll With the Punches and the jazz-focused Versatile – seems to have been sparked by musical camaraderie as much as by any overt creative impulse. Both of those 2017 albums featured Morrison band regulars, while You're Driving Me Crazy finds him working with organist Joey DeFrancesco and his sizzling soul-jazz combo. Both share an enduring desire to preserve mid-century music – but also to extend its reach. Like Morrison, DeFrancesco is no staunch traditionalist. They fiddle with the genre, revel in it. The results can't exactly be called ground breaking, but You're Driving Me Crazy crackles with wit and verve. That's contagious.
Joe Perry - Sweetzerland Manifesto
Joe Perry is your classic Band Guy. When Aerosmith took a break, he joined Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp in the Hollywood Vampires. Similarly, Sweetzerland Manifesto is ostensibly a solo project, but a cover of "Eve of Destruction" (with Perry on vocals) and two instrumentals (the album-opening "Rumble in the Jungle" and "Spanish Sushi," recorded with his sons Tony and Roman) are among the few times when Perry steps definitively forward. Luckily, he's chosen like-minded friends, including Cheap Trick's Robin Zander ("Aye, Aye, Aye"), David Johansen and Terry Reid (three songs each), and they handle the rest of the material with ease. That allows Perry to be what he's always been: the Band Guy.
Joe Satriani - What Happens Next
It wouldn't have surprised anyone if Joe Satriani stayed in space-themed heavy-prog mode again with this album, but its title hints at something new afoot – then delivers. What Happens Next finds Satriani returning to Earth for a delightfully straight-ahead trio recording, ably assisted by drummer Chad Smith, his old Chickenfoot bandmate and bassist Glenn Hughes, a Deep Purple vet. They smartly mix things up, playing fast and loud then downshifting into long cool lines, but make no mistake: This is a complete return to hard-rock form for Satriani. After years of inhabiting alien alter-egos (see 2015's Supernova Shockwave, etc.), he's perhaps never sounded more grounded.
Sleep - The Sciences
Reunions can be fraught affairs, filled with worries that old heroes can't reach old heights again. Then there are times when bands get back together and use received knowledge gained in the meantime to leverage new momentum: That's Sleep, whose 2018 album The Sciences clearly regains confidence, focus and drive from interim successes with High on Fire (Mike Pike), OM (Al Cisneros) and Neurosis (Jason Roeder). This is still a band that wears its influences on their sleeves – in a particularly delicious moment, they mention entering the "Iommisphere" – but in no small way, Sleep have claimed a spot on the metal compass for themselves. They were, and now are again, the essential stoner-doom band.
Stone Temple Pilots - Stone Temple Pilots
Jeff Gutt had a thankless job, stepping into a spot previously held by two dearly departed singers in Scott Weiland and Chester Bennington. "Meadow," the lead single, showed Gutt could help Stone Temple Pilots recreate their familiar grunge-era sound. Whether the DeLeo brothers and drummer Eric Kretz could establish a distinct new phase for the band, however, remained in doubt. Gutt, after all, was trying on huge shoes. This self-titled album, though clearly transitional, put those concerns to bed: They let no small amount of light in, trying out Jellyfish-type psych pop and even something approaching a power ballad. Stone Temple Pilots still need to recapture more of their familiar swagger, but they've gotten past those initial questions.
Jack White - Boarding House Reach
They don't make records like this anymore. Boarding House Reach recalls an era when bands closed themselves up in studios, let their imaginations wander and emerged with double albums – heck, triple albums. This is the sound of bygone freedom, of patient studio bosses and piles of imagination-sparking drugs and very real arguments being made for spoken-word interludes, sound collages and drum solos. Similarly, Boarding House Reach is revealed in the end as an admirable mess, capturing in a snapshot every element of an artist's restless muse – including the ones that don't work. See, there's a reason they don't make albums like this anymore: They're all over the place.
Neil Young - Paradox
Forget the film, this half-baked mess that followed an out-West road trip with Promise of the Real. To be honest, Neil Young's Paradox album often feels just as ephemeral, but that somehow works when you're using only a mind's eye. There's a sense of mystery, something almost lysergic, and that simply doesn't translate onscreen. Meanwhile, Promise of the Real provide a limber new counterweight to Young's reliably creaky whine, showing once again that they get the part of Young that the more muscular Crazy Horse rarely could: his old hippie side.