By Arts Fuse Critics
Our critics offer their musical highlights of 2018.
Best comeback album by a band I thought was long gone: Belly, Dove
This Providence-based band released two albums before breaking up in 1995. They reunited in 2016 and after tours of the U.S. and U.K. released album number three, Dove, this year. The album shows maturity in sound and lyrics; it leads off with three songs about childbirth and childhood (and parenthood) that form a potent trilogy. The middle song, “Shiny One,” was the single and features an addictive chorus. Here’s hoping they stay around for album number four.
Best movie that the critics hated: Bohemian Rhapsody
Having seen the trailer I was convinced this movie had to be great. Then I read all the terrible reviews. But I went to see it anyway. Critics suck. Bohemian Rhapsody may not be The Seventh Seal – and the filmmakers play fast and loose with chronology in several places – but it’s every bit as entertaining as a Queen concert, and that’s well worth the cost of a movie ticket.
Best movie that my girlfriend wanted to see so I went along and to my surprise I liked it, too: A Star is Born
We were going to see Crazy Rich Asians but at the 11th hour the plans changed and we went to see A Star Is Born. I guess every generation gets its own version of this story, and I had mine with Babs and Kris. Now I had to sit through Brad and Gaga. But lo and behold, I was taken in by the story, and Lady Gaga inhabited her character surprisingly well (especially pre-fame). I thought the music was great and Bradley Cooper singing was a revelation (see below).
Best singing from an actor I didn’t know could sing: Bradley Cooper
Combining the unkempt sensitivity of predecessor Kris Kristofferson with the gruff sensuality of co-star Sam Elliott, Bradley Cooper was likable in his role, but it was his singing that really shocked me. He had to be good to make the story believable, but I didn’t expect him to be so unbelievably good.
Best musical for people who don’t like musicals: Jagged Little Pill at the American Repertory Theater
I don’t see a ton of plays. And while I love the classic rock musicals like Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar, I’m not so much into the musical genre; the idea of stopping the story to break into song and dance more often than not looks and sounds silly to me. But Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is an album that kicks serious ass and so did the theatrical version that ran at the ART for too short a run. Lauren Patton delivered the most showstopping showstopper I’ve ever seen with her intense performance of “You Oughta Know.”
Best vault of unreleased tracks: Bob Dylan
Columbia Records began scouring the Dylan vault in 1991 with the first three volumes of what it called The Bootleg Series. This year, Volume 14 came out. Titled More Blood, More Tracks, it comprises six CDs of previously unreleased studio performances from the sessions that produced 1974’s Blood on the Tracks. The sheer quantity of unreleased material that Dylan recorded is astounding. The quality – which surpasses the officially released output of at least 85% of all artists from the rock era – is nothing short of staggering.
Most deserving artist on the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot: Todd Rundgren
I hate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As far as I’m concerned, until the Monkees get in it has zero legitimacy. But I do notice each year’s ballot and after a moment of retching can usually find one or two worthy artists. This year, the most worthy is Todd Rundgren, who truly has a lengthy, eclectic, and innovative career as a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer. He is currently third in the fan voting, behind Def Leppard and Stevie Nicks. Which only serves to prove my point.
Worst loss: Aretha Franklin
In my opinion, she was the greatest singer to ever hold a microphone, and though she died at age 76 of pancreatic cancer, she had been active within a year of her death. Her brilliance was unrivaled. It is still inconceivable that such a rich, passionate voice has been stilled forever.
— Jason M Rubin
10 Albums Beyond Category (Or At Least Slip Around Several)
Joep Beving, Conatus (Deutsche Grammophon)
Rafiq Bhatia, Breaking English (Anti-)
Chanti Darling, R&B Vol. 1 (Tender Loving Empire)
Jon Hassell, Listening To Pictures (ndeya)
Nekissa Laveaux, Radio Siwel (No Format)
Igor Levit, Life (Sony Classical)
Minor Empire, Uprooted (World Trip)
Mueller–Roedelius. Imagori II (Gronland)
Senyawa, Sujud (Sublime Frequencies)
Serpentwithfeet, soil (Secretly Canadian)
20 Favorite Performances By Women (a couple only discovered in 2018)
Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel (Mom + Pop)
Zoe Boekbinder, Shadow (Self-released)
Melanie Brulee, Fires, Floods & Things We Leave Behind (JKB)
Buika, New Afro Spanish Collective (Warner Music Spain)
Neko Case, Hell-On (Anti-)
Shemekia Copland, America’s Child (Alligator)
Jain, Souldier (Sony)
Bette LaVette, Things Have Changed (Verve)
Lisa LeBlanc, Highways Heartaches and Time Well Wasted (Tot ou tard)
L7, Fast and Frightening (Easy Action)
Marmozets, Knowing What You Know Now (Roadrunner)
Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer (Atlantic)
Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism (All Points/Believe)
Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel (RCA)
Talitha Rise, An Abandoned Orchid House (self-released)
Amanda Shires, To the Sunset (Silver Knife)
Moira Smiley, Unzip the Horizon (Self-released)
Teatr-Pralnia with CCA Dakh, “Eat Drink Work Sleep” (Center Stage/NEFA)
Tracy Thorn, Record (Merge)
Patricia Vonne, Top of the Mountain (Bandolera)
— Milo Miles
Top 10 favorite live Boston musical moments — and one clunker
Bettye LaVette – May 17, City Winery – There are plenty of veteran artists whose set lists are so set in stone that their new recordings are all but ignored when they perform live. But soul diva Bettye LaVette is no typical veteran artist, which she’s proved yet again with her latest album Things Have Changed. This is a unique look on some of Bob Dylan’s less familiar songs, and she performed the disc in its entirety.
Kayhan Kalhor and Edral Erzincan – May 20, Berklee Performance Center – The duo of Persian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player Kalhor and the equally virtuosic Turkish saz (long-necked lute) master Erzincan have hardly ever performed together. But you sure wouldn’t have known that from the way their melodies and deep improvisations blended in this World Music/CRASHArts concert.
Playing for the Planet: World Music Against Climate Change – June 2, Community Church of Boston – This wasn’t just a benefit for a great cause, it was also a chance for three of the region’s finest traditional music masters to reach a new audience: Ramchandra Joshi sang Hindustani khyal, Mal Barsamian showed why he’s the area’s foremost Armenian oudist, and 17 year old Gus LaCasse made clear that the fiddle tunes of his native Maine are in excellent hands.
Ayalew Mesfin – June 9, PVDFest, Providence, RI – You had to really dig into the small print to find it, but there at this wonderful free street festival was none other than one of the great voices of ’70s Ethiopian funk, sounding as good as ever backed by a compact garage version of Debo Band.
Marisa Anderson and Glenn Jones – July 3, Atwood’s – Given the competition among the guitarists, few develop their very own sound. Two distinctive artists joined forces for a night of musical revelations.
Lowell Folk Festival – The area’s essential annual world and roots music event remains the sprawling Lowell Folk Festival. Each year presents a bounty of new discoveries. Some of this go-around’s highlights included the outrageous Hawaiian big band Kahulanui, Cajun honky tonker Kyle Huval and the Afro-Colombian beats of Tribu Baharu, who will be back in town in February 2019 for CrashFest. (Full disclosure: I wrote some of the artist bios for the Lowell Folk Festival website.)
Newport Jazz Festival – August 3-5, Fort Adams State Park – Four stages were run over three days, but Newport managed to keep its quality control on high. If I had to pick a single highlight it would have been the early-morning set by the Trio 3: Saxophonist Oliver Lake, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Andrew Cyrille, whose solo garnered its own well-deserved standing ovation. A very close runner-up: former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, who deftly mixed hard-bop with Afrobeat.
Legends of Deep Soul – September 7, Sonia – Another disclosure: I booked and produced this concert as part of my 40th birthday celebration. But I couldn’t have been happier with how septuagenarian soul singers Thelma Jones and Willie Hightower sang, or with the all-star band led by Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the voices of the Natural Wonders.
Linda Gail Lewis and Robbie Fulks – September 21, City Winery Haymarket Lounge — 2018 was the City Winery’s first full year. On the plus side, the space’s sound is great, its staff friendly, and it brought to town quite a few artists who would not have otherwise played anywhere reachable by the MBTA. On the downside, the capacity of the main room was many times greater than the few dozen who showed up for the likes of John Anderson, the Cowsills, Brewer and Shipley, and Davell Crawford. My favorite shows tended to be found in the more intimate Haymarket Lounge: ’60s folkie Eric Anderson, a very successful LP release night for Ryan Lee Crosby, and the inspired pairing of wry songwriter Robbie Fulks with Linda Gail Lewis, who may be Jerry Lee’s little sister but who has more than come into her own as a pianist and singer. Fulks and Lewis also put out my favorite studio album of 2018, Wild Wild Wild.
Clinton Fearon – September 15, Paradise Rock Club – In the past, Jamaican reggae stalwart Fearon has come to town with a large band. Those shows were memorable, but the man alone — with just his guitar, his songs, and his spirit — may have been even better.
Boston University Global Music Festival – Oct 5-6 – One of the most exciting developments for fans of international music in the Boston area was the debut of this free festival. There’s some logistical tweaking to do, but the programming was stellar. The highlight: the wonderfully boisterous Central-Eastern Chinese wedding and funeral music served up by the Zhou Family Band.
Dan Auberbach – House of Blues, March 25 – The Black Keys frontman rolled into town with a revue that included the Boston debut of Louisiana blues/soul journeyman Robert Finley. Finley was a nice discovery, but Auerbach’s own material turned out to be such bland Americana that even the presence on stage of several members of the seminal Memphis Boys studio band couldn’t make the music interesting.
— Noah Schaffer
The buzz around Marcus King over the past couple of years turned into a full-bore roar in 2018. And the attention is well-deserved. Though just 22 years old, King is a triple-threat artist, parading well-honed skills as a guitarist, singer, and band leader. King draws inspiration from the past: he looks and sounds as if he’d be right at home on stage of the Fillmore East opening for the Allman Brothers Band in 1971. Yet he blends the emotional heat of classic soul singers with a youthful energy and voice, all of it augmented by genre-bending, mind-snapping guitar solos. What’s more, King surrounds himself with players as anxious as he is to push boundaries.
These merits are all on display on October’s Carolina Confessions, the Marcus King Band album produced by David Cobb. King stepped up in the songwriting department while he and his band have jelled into a powerful ensemble that easily maneuvers through rock ’n’ roll, country, the blues, soul, funk and jazz without sounding disjointed or perfunctory.
Such songs as “Side Door,” “Homesick,” “Goodbye Carolina,” and “Welcome ’Round Here”’ are smart, sharp tunes that King and crew let speak for themselves without overdoing musical fireworks that command attention. Everyone steps up for some nice soloing, especially King, but the band trusts its new songs to carry the record, and it works.
Seeing the Marcus King Band live, however, is another story. King played two sold-out shows at the Sinclair in Cambridge in November, each night blossoming into a raucous celebration of the redemptive power of live rock ’n’ soul.
King happily wandered from the announced set lists, and this is exactly the band you want to watch operate on instinct rather than following a script. For those who judge a band by its covers, King tellingly tucked in his Sinclair shows The Beatles “Dear Prudence,” The Band’s “The Weight,” Allman Brothers Band’s “Hot ‘Lanta,” Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and Les McCann’s “Compared to What.”
King has benefited from the nurturing support of a number of established artists. Guitarist Warren Haynes released the Greenville, S.C., native’s early records. The Tedeschi Trucks Band included the Marcus King Band on this summer’s Wheels of Soul tour, often inviting King and his bandmates to join in on big, boisterous show-ending jam sessions. When revisiting his Black Crowes material for a brief tour fronting As the Crow Flies, singer Chris Robinson tapped King to be among the guitar players on the project. Even King’s local stop drew the attention of a revered elder statesman of the guitar; Jeff Lockhart sat in with the Marcus King Band for a raging take on “Compared to What.” The signs are promising that, if King continues to mature musically, he will defy comparisons.
— Scott McLennan