2018: The Year’s Top-Rated Albums


The list below is a round-up of the 5-star, 4.5-star and 4-star reviews that ran in print editions of DownBeat during 2018. If a performer was the focus of a feature story, it’s likely their album wasn’t reviewed, and accounts for its omission from the list below. Peruse at your leisure—and enjoy. DB


Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest (Blue Note)

When Akinmusire toured the Origami Harvest project prior to recording, the music was touted as a “jazz/rap/classical mash-up,” in part to explain the presence of rapper Kool A.D. and the Mivos String Quartet. But the music itself doesn’t really stitch jazz, rap and classical together. Instead, it repurposes elements of each to create something strikingly unique.

Kenny Barron Quintet, Concentric Circles (Blue Note)

At age 75, pianist Barron embodies the convergence of modern, progressive jazz and classic post-bop traditions. There’s nothing old-fashioned about the 11 tracks on Concentric Circles, his 47th album as a leader, featuring eight original compositions and four younger colleagues. Barron employs tunefulness, fine touch and implacable swing with ease and variety, drawing from decades of experience as an in-demand accompanist and bandleader. Yes, he could be showier, but this project is absolutely perfect as is, delighting the ear with delicate flourishes and turns.

Stacey Kent, I Know I Dream: The Orchestral Sessions (OKeh)

Kent’s mezzo-soprano voice is a beautiful instrument for offsetting orchestral accompaniment, a fact that I Know I Dream: The Orchestral Sessions illustrates well. The orchestra, a 52-piece London studio assemblage, has a lushness that would smother Nelson Riddle—yet the vocalist cuts through it effortlessly. In fairness, the arrangements hardly can compete with Kent’s presence. But the singer has a relatively soft, restrained voice that on a less-skilled performer might easily be overpowered. Kent is incisive, even at a near-whisper, as on the tender arrangement of “Photograph,” a mesmerizing bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Wojtek Mazolewski, Polka (Worldwide Deluxe Edition) (Whirlwind)

Mazolewski, leader of the Polish experimental jazz quartet Pink Freud, offers up a bundled version of some of his previous works with Polka (Worldwide Deluxe Edition). The bassist and composer swaps three tunes from his critically acclaimed 2014 album Polka (Agora S.A.) for the title cuts from his 2017 12-inch “London/Theme De YoYo” (Lanquidity). This rejiggering of past releases results in a musical travelogue that tracks the bandleader’s wanderlust and musical prowess.

Steve Tibbetts, Life Of (ECM)

Because there’s so much atmosphere in Tibbetts’ music—the reverb-laden guitar, ghostly piano chords, quiet washes of percussion—it can be easy to assume that atmosphere is all he’s got. After all, the guitarist is not one for big, brash statements or deeply funky grooves, nor do his tunes offer anything like the easily decoded structure of pop songcraft. And when the narrative is hard to follow, it’s all too tempting to assume there isn’t one at all. With Life Of, Tibbetts makes it easier to follow the thread by presenting a series of sonic portraits, each one offered as a “Life Of.” It’s not storytelling in any conventional sense, but it does lend a certain specificity to the mood and vocabulary of each piece.


Bob Dylan, Trouble No More —The Bootleg Series Vol. 13, 1979-1981 (Columbia/Legacy)

Fred Hersch Trio, Heartsongs (Sunnyside)

Fela Kuti, Underground System (Knitting Factory)

Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson Plays (Verve)

Woody Shaw, Tokyo ’81 (Elemental)

Muddy Waters, The Best Of Muddy Waters (Chess/UMe)

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