I was not sure, at first, wheter to present an update of my selection of the best songwriters of 2018, or rather to wait until next month and publish the final “End of the Year List”. In the end I decided to go for the update, mainly because in the recent months there were a few very important releases, including Kurt Vile, Thomas Dybdahl and Michelle Mandico, and I thought it might be nice to see them together with the other artists that made this year so exciting.
You’ll find below an update of my personal selection of the best records by contemporary singer-songwriters. Compared to the previous episode, which appeared on last September, there are new entries and also some repositioning between some of the artists who were already included.
Enjoy this list and also the music that has been selected for each one of the selected artist. And stay tuned in view of the final chart, which will arrive approximately in one month from now.
#1) King Dude, “Music To Make War To”
American songwriter Thomas Jefferson Cowgill is one of those artists who likes to move between extremely different forms of expression. In his brilliant musical career he now operates under the pseudonym of King Dude and with such new artistic identity he has already released a good number of excellent pubications. As a matter of fact, listening to King Dude’s discography one may think that’s it is practically impossible for him to publish low quality works and his latest record, Music to Make War To totally confirms this trajectory.
King Dude’s new album looks like as a perfect blend between The National and Nick Cave, in which however the melodic elements of the songs always prevail over the more introspective aspect of the music. As expected the album is deeply rooted on that melancholic tone which has become one of the most recognizable elements of King Dude’s music (what’s sometimes referred to as “dark folk” or “goth folk”), nevertheless melancholy is partially alleviated in Dude’s new album through a lightness of approach and also a research for musical simplicity which are at times totally disarming.
Arrived to the seventh record of his great discography, King Dude has succeded in the apparent impossible operation to make catchy and somehow “radio friendly” songs which still convey the emotional intensity and the darkness that we appreciated in his previous works.
#2) Sarah McQuaid, “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous”
Madrid-born, Chicago-raised and UK-based singer and songwriter Sarah McQuaid has explored in her valuable career many shades of folk and alt rock, and listening to her most recent works we can realize how profound and rich this journey has been. Sarah’s last and fifht release, If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, is her more mature album so far, and the songs of the LP capture the artist in a phase of full confidence in her capacities.
In McQuaid’s new album, the artist meditates over challenging themes and evokes intimate and sometimes desolate atmospheres. Most of the songs of are characterized by dark tones and rarefied melodies, so don’t expect to find crystal-clear melodies and danceable but, rather, get ready for a melancholic journey where the happy ending is not always guaranteed.
The main feeling that emerges from If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous seems to be the serene acceptance of human nature and the fact that sometimes we have only a minor role before the regular and imperturbable cycle of life. This cosmic message is partly evoked by the artist’s voice and lyrics, and partly by the haunting, minimal and evocative music, which is the real added value of the album. We have a few ballads in the classic style of folk, with violins and acoustic guitars, but the peak of the emotions, in my opinion, is reached when the Sarah McQuaid sings accompanied by only the reverberation of her electric guitar, which arrives to you hears as an echo from distant worlds, like memories from your past that suddenly appear in a corner of your thoughts, leaving a feeling of conscious abandonment.
#3) Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood, “With Animals”
The discography of American iconic singer-songritwer Mark Lanegan has become so full of different and heterogenous entries that there is a specific page on Wikipedia that is dedicated to report all of his releases and appearances, which include many solo albums, a bunch of EPs and a vastity of collaborations with other bands and musicians. As part of this large number of collaborations, in 2013 Lanegan released an interesting record with English singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood. The album, called Black Pudding, received however mixed reactions from the public and the critics, partly due to the absolutely secondary role that was given to Gardwood, but also because Black Pudding, in the end, resulted as an extremely monochromatic and predictable album, with Lanegan anchored to his consolidated formula of dark and bluesy folk.
Five years after Black Pudding, Lanegan and Darkwood have released a second collaborative effort, named With Animals, and since the first couple of songs it’s clear that the harmony and the spiritual connection between the two has largely improved. For the casual listener this album could appear quite similar to the last few works by Lanegan, but this is not true if you go beyond the surface.
With Animals is a solid and inspired album, where all the songs are linked and correlated by a sort of spiritual connection, something which makes you feel like venturing into the darkest and most disturbing areas of your inner self. Darkness, restlessness, impotence. These are the feelings that emerge when you listen to With Animals, which don’t come only from the raspy voice of Lanegan, but this time also from a stronger contribution by Garwood and his hypnotic guitar loops. Garwood’s, in many moments of the album, reaches peaks of absolute beauty and in a few cases it even takes the lead over Lanegan’s voice.
If you’re not discouraged by the minimal arrangements, the slow rhythms and the dark and oppressive atmospheres, With Animals can become a valuable companion to your moments of reflection and relax.
#4) Michelle Mandico, “Ptarmigan”
Michelle Mandico is a young singer-songwriter from Colorado, in the U.S., who released this year an impressive debut album, Ptarmingan, which not only showcases her remarkable musical sensitivity and expressive voice, but that enters immediately among the best indie folk releases of the year.
The release notes of Ptarmigan say that Michelle spent 2 years writing and recording her album, and from what we hear the result of such effort is evident. Without knowing the details of Mandico’s writing process, I presume that most of the work consisted in “lightening” the music by removing all the superfluous components and putting the melodies and her sublime voice at the centre of each song. Ptarmingan is in fact extremely delicate and soft, and the arrangements are made so as to leave in each song an area of apparent emptiness to be filled by the listener’s imagination. This is music that has the ability to relieve you from the thoughts and concerns of your day, whilst Mandico’s voice captures your heart.
Yes, the voice. I believe that there are skills and abilities that can be learned and improved with hard work. However, there are also innate talents that every person possesses as a gift. That of Michelle Mandico, in my opinion, is to enchant the listeners with her beautiful voice.
From a musical point of view, Ptarmingan follows a style of American folk that’s quite close to the classics of the genre. This is probably one aspect on which Michelle Mandico can now concentrate her efforts, trying to develop a more characteristic and unique sound. The musical performance is however flawless and it also benefits from the value of the musicians who collaborated to this project.
There is a new talent in the music scene, she is a songwriter gifted by an extraordinary and fascinating voice that we will follow con interest and curiosity in her next steps.
#5) First Aid Kit, “Ruins”
First Aid Kit, the Swedish folk duo consisting of the two Söderberg sisters, released in January 2018 a new album, Ruins, which enriches an already interesting and valid discography. In ten years of career, the duo has in fact released to date four EPs and just as many LPs, reaching the very first positions of the Swedish charts and collecteing also many important awards at international level.
Ruins is particularly interesting record because it shows a clear desire of the two sisters to experiment with new styles and directions for their music, in particular as regards the increased presence of elements of country music. Even if they’re still relatively young (the older of the two, Johanna, hasn’t reached yet her thirty years) the two Söderber sisters have already demonstrated a remarkable musical maturity, and in this respect the songs of their latest album show a further improvement in terms of musical sensibility and songwriting skills.
#6) Thomas Dybdahl, “All These Things”
One year after the release of his appreciated album The Great Plains, Thomas Dybdahl is back with a new work called All These Things, which indicates that the artist must be experiencing a period of particular creativity.
An element that amazed me last year on the occasion of Dybdahl’s previous record, and which still surprises me as I listen to All These Things, is how Dybdahl’s music is so warm and soft, which is basically the opposite of what you would expect when thinking of the cold lands of Norway. The atmospheres that emanate from the songs of his new album are extremely relaxed and intimate, and the effect is further amplified by the absolute elegance of the arrangements. The persistent tranquility and warmth of the music allow the album to flow placidly and smoothly from the beginning to the end, but at the same time – at least for a distracted listener – it might also appear that All These Things doesn’t offer any burst of emotions, or any moment where the shallow calm is broken by a sudden wave of energy. In reality what happens is that most of the beauty of Dybdhal’s new work is hidden in the details of each song, as well as in the overall balance that has been achieved among the various components of the music. Therefore, it’s really difficult to appreciate the real value of the album with only a superficial listening.
In the best tradition of Dybdahl’s productions there are always a couple of songs in every album which stand out from the others, and this is confirmed also in his latest LP. However, both the style and the dominating atmospheres that we find in the songs of the album are extremely similar and, in the end, All These Things, taken as a whole, is definitely more uniform and homogeneous than Dybdahl’s previous records. This is partly due to the fact that the album was recorded in the course of only 3 days. As the author explained, it was a sort of reaction to the fact that his previous album was much more focused on the production and on the sonic aspect of the songs.
Another element of interest of the album is given by the fact that Dybdahl collaborated with a cast of talented artists, including American songwriter and producer Larry Klein, American composer and pianist Patrick Warren and American guitarist Dean Parks. And when you launch the album it really seems to be surrounded by an ensemble of excellent musicians, playing just for you, in a relaxed environment, creating precious and fragile fragments of melodies over delicate sequence of chords.
#7) Holly Miranda, “Mutual Horse”
There are only few things in music that are more beautiful than the magic that’s reached when creativity and authenticity are combined with the beauty of the melodies and the depth of the songs. This special combination of factors may be found in the songs of Holly Miranda‘s latest album, Mutual Horse.
Arrived at her fourth solo LP, the American singer-songwriter has definitely mastered the expressive abilities of her peculiar style and of her intriguing voice. The songs of her new record, in fact, range between different and sometimes contrasting atmospheres but all of them share the same fluency and enjoyability, two characteristics which make the experience of listening like an emotional journey along delicate, quiet and sometimes poignant atmospheres.
Maybe there isn’t any track with the credentials to become an “hit” but taken in its entirety this is probably one of the best LPs composed and recorded by Holly Miranda up to this point.
#8) Kurt Vile, “Bottle It In”
If someone should ask me whose artist I would be able to recognize after listening only to a few guitar chords, I would definitely say Kurt Vile. Few songwriters have in fact developed a style so easily identifiable as the American musician did in the ten years of his career. This characteristic certainly represents a positive aspect from the point of view of musical identity, but it also means that Kurt Wile’s records, at least at first impact, seem to be all the same. Clearly this is not the case, even because all the longterm fans of Kurt Wile (as I am) can easily appreciate that across his eight studio albums there are physiological highs and lows. In such a range of values, Bottle It In, which is Kurt Vile’s most recent effort, places approximately in the middle.
In one hand, in fact, the album indulges in melodies and harmonies that are at times so simple and essential to seem almost improvised, but on the other hand the songs played by Kurt Vile continue to provide us with little sketches of contemporary poetry, always nice and fascinating to hear.
And even if some of the songs may give us the idea that the album came out sooner than the right time, it remains always a pleasure to have something new from a talented and unique singer-songwriter like Kurt Vile.
#9) L.A. Salami, “The City of Bootmakers”
I want to be honest: if L.A. Salami entered the list of the best songwriters of the year it’s mainly because of one specific song of his 2018’s LP The City of Bootmakers, a tune that’s stuck in my mind since the beginning of the year and which doesn’t want to go away. I’m talking of the song I Need Answers, which is probably one of the most beautiful modern ballads that I’ve heard this year and that highlights the multifaceted style of this young artist.
London singer and songwriter Lookman Adekunle Salami, best known as L.A. Salami, is one of those artists who manages to escape from easy labels. On the contrary, he’s one that demands to his listeners dedication and attention because of the complexity and charm of his music. Hovering constantly over the thin boundary which separates pop from folk, the tracks of his records seem to be written for a niche of listeners, and only sporadically the musical language of this artist manages to find a more immediate and easily understandable expression for the casual listener.
On L.A. Salami’s second album, The City of Bootmakers, the artist showcases a very unique blend of styles and inspirations, but he also addresses deep and challenging subjects, which are treated however with an uncommon class and profoundity. The musical part isn’t always up to the author’s ambitions, but in the most successful songs we may enjoy one of the most charming and stylish songwriters of his generation.
#10) Ellens Starski, “The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants”
Tennessee-based singer-songwriter Ellen Starski released in 2018 her solo debut album, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants, which collects the folk songs that she wrote over the course of the last 12 years. The album highlights the many influences that contributed to define her style of music: stripped-down and melodic folk ballads that are reminiscent of the the early works from Bob Dylan, Tori Amos, Patti Smith and to some extent also Paul Cohen.
A special mention is necessary for Ellens’ emotional voice, which is often the real added value of the album. Throughout the songs of the LP the artist sings of her homeland, she tells personal anedoctes or reflects upon the beauty of nature, with a style that is both an homage to the masters of the past and also a celebration of the magic of folk.
Taken as a whole, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants features a very valuable and enjoyable collection of indie-folk songs, some of them particularly exciting, and we expect good things for her future, ideally with a style that will become, with the years, even more unique and particular.
All the artists that were included in this chart, together with others that didn’t appear, are featured in the playlist MODERN SONGWRITERS. Listen to it and follow it, because it’s updated periodically with new songs.