Favourite, not best. I happen to consider them the best, but you certainly may feel different. One will notice no 'big tent' bluegrass on this list-the furthest afield I go is with my #1 album, which is still fair solid bluegrass.
These are the albums I felt delivered in 2018.
1. The Travelin' McCourys- "The Travelin' McCourys" An incredible album. Featuring three capable (and better) lead vocalists and five earth-shattering musicians, The Travelin' McCourys deliver a set of complex bluegrass that remains firmly rooted while extending branches toward the light. Wonderful stuff: powerful, masterful, and most importantly, memorable.
2. Sister Sadie- "II" There are a lot of great bluegrass bands working today: I would put Sister Sadie up against any one of them. "II" is even more unified than their debut with the group having melded into a seamless force greater than its exceedingly impressive parts. The quintets' natural essence is given prominence, a traditional vision bolstered by contemporary approaches.
3. David Davis & the Warrior River Boys- "Didn't He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole" David Davis is a true follower of The Monroe Doctrine. "Didn't He Ramble" is a well-considered collection of music from the early years of the twentieth century. Many of the songs are well-known, but Davis and co-producer Robert Montgomery also include less familiar numbers. An album of considerable variation, an acceptance of life's departures is an apparent theme; one senses Davis and Montgomery drawn to songs where everything doesn't go to plan. An exemplary example of modern, traditional bluegrass.
4. Rudi Ekstein- "Carolina Chimes" This 'All Original Bluegrass Instrumental Showcase' is 34-minutes of tunes sounding fresh, invigorated, and powerful. The twelve numbers flow brilliantly, a set of mandolin-based bluegrass the likes we haven't experienced in years. An absolute stunner of a bluegrass album.
5. High Fidelity- "Hills and Home" "Hills and Home" serves as an appealing versatile introduction to this quintet's energetic, foundationally strong, and vocal-focused representation of contemporary bluegrass. The group presents bluegrass that captures the old-time sounds influenced by Reno & Smiley, with shades of the Louvins in their arrangement choices and production approaches. High Fidelity is bringing bluegrass music's rich history forward to today's audience.
6. Special Consensus- "Rivers and Roads" I didn't write about this album. I just listened to it about thirty times. I haven't been disappointed in an album from Special C in a long time, and given the strength of this set, I won't be in the foreseeable future. A core of solid songs, lively singing, a few notable guest spots, and blazing instrumentation: my kinda bluegrass mix.
7. Peter Rowan- "Carter Stanley's Eyes" An acute reminder of that, when performed with talent, inspiration, and respect, bluegrass is a very powerful thing. Rowan-the target of the infamous Bill Monroe quote, "Don't go too far out on that limb, there's enough flowers out there already"-has frequently ventured well-outside the bluegrass realm. He returns to the formidable truck of the bluegrass tree with an album-long tribute to the music and its originators, especially Carter and Ralph Stanley. The light still shines in Peter Rowan's eyes: that he loves bluegrass music is doubtless. Neither is his ability to create a masterful album of bluegrass classics.
8. Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road- "True Grass Again" Carolina Road has always been strongest following Jordan's keen vision of bluegrass. Here Carolina Dream create a faithful, refreshing representation of the ever-evolving genre by ensuring a secure grounding in the traditional substratum of bluegrass. "True Grass Again" is a fine return to form for this well-established and soulful outfit.
9. Various Artists- "Epilogue: A Tribute to John Duffey" A lovingly assembled testament to the status John Duffey attained and the influence he continues to impart upon bluegrass music. Compiled from numerous sessions over almost 20 years, it also serves as acknowledgment to the devotion of its producers, Bluegrass 45s' Akira Otsuka and Ronnie Freeman. Despite being assembled track-by-track, including 53 musicians and singers making contributions in a variety of makeshift studio settings, the 46-minute, 17-song set is coherent, bound as it is by the tensile strength of the bluegrass community.
10. Del McCoury Band- "Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass" With the exception of the lead track "Hot Wired," on which Del and the Boys seem to be trying too hard to be edgy, this album delivers on the faith we've been placing in Mr. McCoury from the first day we heard him thirty-some years ago. McCoury's voice isn't what it once was, but that it just fine; when performances are as strong and true as these, we'll forgive the effects of time's passage.
A note: Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard- "Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969" is not included simply because it isn't fully a 'bluegrass' album. While there is no doubting Hazel and Alice was bluegrass and this archival release is tremendous , these practice sessions/kitchen tapes feature little to no bluegrass instrumentation, and are as such 'just a bit outside' my definition of bluegrass for the purposes of this list. Without a doubt, it remains one of my favourite five roots releases of the year.
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Best to you for the Christmas and holiday season and a terrific New Year. Donald