The last year of the decade was every bit as solid as each of the preceding years. Counter to popular belief, I still tend to think that real artists make albums. Maybe songs turn slowly into albums, but thematically the 32 releases I fell in love with this year were complete works of art birthed usually from a central theme (love, loss, anxiety, hope, politics, etc.). In years past I tended to have more electronic leaning favorites, but this time around I am back to guitars, acoustic meditations and genre-bending creativity that defies most comparisons. In many ways 2019 was a personal roller coaster, so I am incredibly grateful for all of the music that helped me fill the holes that opened and closed along the way. I hope everybody spends some time with these artists independent of your mood.
- Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka (Polydor)
There was no record that mined the history of music from rock to soul to R&B quite as thoroughly as Michael Kiwanuka’s brilliant third full length album. It has a sound that is both undeniably modern yet also unidentifiable as an artifact of any specific era. Produced in part by the incomparable Danger Mouse, Kiwanuka channels politics and passion in a way that is long dormant since Marvin Gaye or the solo era of Paul Weller. Sadly not much has changed since then, the world is still broken, race relations are at a boiling point and hate seems to dominate the news.
Kiwanuka, a Ugandan Brit, has emerged a freedom fighter much the way Marley did in the 70’s, and as a defender of a better future. He opens with an infectious groove on “You Ain’t the Problem” where he sings “Love makes you blind / I hope to find / Who I believe in / Get back in line.” On almost every song he manages to lay down some heavy soul, taking you on a journey to some place that feels familiar, letting it all wash over you like a warm shower. Pure genius.
2. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguar)
It seems like an eternity since this brilliant collection was released (very early in 2019) and had I been listening to it on vinyl the grooves would be worn thin. I’ve been fanatical about her deeply personal and gracefully maturing music for almost a decade now. From the fragile and dark folk of her early work, to this more fully realized effort with songs that encroach on pop, Sharon has arrived in a very real way.
From the infectious, “Seventeen” where she wails “I used to be free, I used to be Seventeen,” to the raucus “Comeback Kid,” and the brooding “Jupiter 4” there is a kind of raw power, reminiscent of the early PJ Harvey, but more polished and melodic. In a world filled with pre-packaged starlets who neither write their own music nor play the music, Sharon Van Etten is a bright light looking back and forward. “Remind Me Tomorrow” touches something close to perfection from the first note to the last.
3. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains (Drag City)
David Berman, AKA Silver Jews, and most recently Purple Mountains, was always more of a poet than a rock star. A long-suffering conjurer of a dark artistic melancholy, Berman left us with one last tragically comic meditation on modern life, depression and laughter. A few nights before embarking on his first tour in a decade, he quietly ended his life knowing that he had given us one last gift.
In a career’s worth of near perfect rock songs, perhaps “All My Happiness is Gone” might be his sadly foreshadowing best. In it he warbles in that familiar baritone “Ten thousand afternoons ago / My happiness just overflowed / That was life at first and goal to go … All our hardships were just yardsticks, then you know.” Great often comes from incredible sorrow, and Berman mined his soul for us.
4. Jose Gonzalez & String Theory– Live In Europe (Mute)
Jose Gonzalez has one of the most mesmerizing voices in music, and has penned some of the most hypnotic songs of the past 15 years. When performing solo, he accompanies himself on an intricately strummed acoustic guitar channeling Nick Drake and letting vocals and guitars just melt into each other sublimely. But in this expansive career retrospective performed throughout Europe, he engages the German avant-garde String Theory to build one of the most important fusions of classical music and folk ever recorded. I was lucky enough to have seen it performed three times in 2019, but this recording captures all of the transcendent joy emotion of the real thing. In a career of starkly beautiful songs, many of his best are present, including “Heartbeats,” Crosses,” Let It Carry You,” and “Down The Line.” Undeniable magic.
5. Angel Olson – All Mirrors (Jagjaguar)
There has always been a darkness at the center of Angel Olson’s music, but not until now has it been so drenched in such traditional gothiness. “All Mirrors” is a sprawling album filled with lush orchestral accompaniments that create an even deeper exploration of the mind and soul. The song of the same name will likely go down as one of the best of the decade building slowly into a black rainbow of emotion.
This is a breakup record, but adorned in something more regal. On “Lark” she sings “To forget you is to hide / There? is still so much left to recover / If? only we could start again / Pretending we don’t know each other.” In a year filled with incredibly strong female vocalists, Angel Olson has emerged as a the Queen if darkness.
6. Hannah Cohen – Welcome Home (Bella Union)
2019 featured so many extraordinary young female voices, but this lush waking dream of an album works as a kind of hypnotic charm. Recorded in Woodstock, there is a rustic dreaminess that haunts each of the 10 songs on “Welcome Home.” A mixture of folk and spare electro-pop, it is as much the effortlessness of her music as the effort that makes such an impactful cohesive work.
On the blissed-out contemplative opener “This Is Our Life” where she croons “This is your life / Don’t let it happen to you / What is your move / The deal’s on the table in clear view” she clearly emerges eons wiser than her years. This is an album meant to be savored from opening chord to closing verse.
7. Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet (Loma Vista)
25 years into a wildly eclectic jaunt through the wilds of indie rock from the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and almost 20 years of solo efforts, this appropriately named release might just be his finest work. For fans of Father John Misty, this is spot on, but for those who find Father just a bit too much, “My Finest Work Yet” is the album you’ve been hoping he’d get around to making.
Bird is a Chicago born virtuoso violinist and arranger with a voice from a hard to place era. The 13 songs here are jazzy, loungey and bluesy, but injected with a Laurel Canyon looseness (perhaps reflecting his recent move to LA). Any Bird song worth it’s salt features a heavy dose of violin, whistling and lyrics filled not with self-reflective emotion but with an incredible literary journey to places you’ve never even considered. This is truly a special work of art.
8. Jamilla Woods– Legacy (Jagjaguar)
Chicagoan and Brown educated Jamilla Woods is a poet, historian, singer and interpreter of the modern world who combines activism with hip hop lyricism into one of the most unique albums of the year. There is both 90’s acid jazz and 50’s cabaret. Like a modern amalgam of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and every other African American change maker, she pulls both directly from their words and imagines the ones they never wrote.
On “Giovanni,” inspired by a Nikki Giovanni poem entitled “Ego Tripping”, she sings “Any minute now you get the message / Eenie meenie miney pick an apt description / I’m impressive, you can check my chart for reference.” This is history similar to Hamilton is in some ways. On the banger “Zora” she merely sings it like it is “None of us are free but some of us are brave / I dare you to shrink my wave, I’m on a new plane.” This is an easy listen but a heavy dose of our often-shameful history.
9. Aldous Harding – Designer (4AD)
There is something so seductive and beguiling about the third album by the Kiwi songstress Aldous Harding, that you find yourself getting lost in some kind of enchanted forest, shrouded in fog but filled with odd Tolkienesque characters merging from the darkness nonchalantly. Her lyrical gymnastics and breathy vocals work together in some sort of perfect balance.
On “Fixture Picture” she croons “Fixture picture / I’ve got it, I’m on it / You’re in it, I’m honored” which serves as a kind of adieu to an ex which just calmly drifts into the future. But it’s the stand out “The Barrel” where she continues to mine the strange corners of her soul, but does so unlike anyone “The wave of love is a transient hurt / Water’s the shell and we are the knot / But I saw a hand arch out of the barrel.” This is a waking dream of an album.
10. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center (Dead Oceans)
Supergroups are usually more pure novelty than anything likely to be permanent. But Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers seem to have created a band with more staying power. Hopefully. The folky rock that both artists have made a career out of as soloists, extends so seamlessly to this near perfect collaboration of lyrics and sentiment.
The band channels a rootsy Americana vibe that feels more 70’s than today, but tends to lean towards something more literary than just SoCal beaches and Laurel Canyon. On “My City” they lament “This town is a monolith / This town is a crowded movie / This town is a depot, I come and go / This town is my city.” Just let the music play, but pay attention to the little moments.
11. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (Polydor)
Somewhere between too much hype and not enough time, Lana has flirted with real lasting career potential for almost a decade. She always towed the line between sugar and serene, but this time around she has created a masterpiece of patience and ethereal beauty. This one is a gently rolling stream of conscious and emotion. Her vocals are both fragile yet self-confident, adorned with acoustic guitars, piano, and a kind of lazily seductive hypnotism.
The nearly ten minute “Venice Bitch” is the kind of epic that will never find the radio or even that popular indie playlist, but seems to signal her ambition while drawing directly from the pop culture of her youth: “You’re in the yard, I light the fire / And as the summer fades away / Nothing gold can stay.” She is both an Outsider, but also someone perfectly in tune with the modern age.
12. Big Thief – Two Hands & U.F.O.F (4AD)
Releasing one brilliant record in a year is a remarkable feat, but two is almost unheard of in an era where the idea of a double album has been dead for twenty-years. There is no big thematic shift in the two albums, more just twins born a few months apart. The band is bursting with the prolific creativity of a band playing both with a sense of urgency combined and with a kind of calming mysticism.
Although the band was formed in and lives in Brooklyn, the music is born and recorded in rustic locales which explains the raw earthiness of each of the songs. The fragile vocals of singer Adrianne Lenker, creates a kind of intimacy that gives the band raw texture. On the standout “Not” we hear her sing “It’s not the energy reeling / Nor the lines in your face /Nor the clouds on the ceiling / Nor the clouds in space.” The band is a bit reminiscent of The Band – richly talented group of players on a voyage with no particular destination.
13. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (Ghoesteen Ltd.)
Nick Cave’s music has never been anything other than an unfiltered dose of whatever he’s navigating through. On “Ghosteen” he confronts the death of his son who died tragically a few years back. There is no holding back on the raw emotion that comes with unexpected grief, and as such the album is beautiful but a heavy ride.
As with most Cave efforts, there are huge soundscapes painted with odd sounds and instruments, accompanying his deep distinctive vocals. For 35 years he has been able to nuance both a dark and foreboding persona but also the world around him. “Ghosteen” is a sublime and tranquil coming to terms with one of life’s most tragic events. I thank him for sharing.
14. Vagabon – Vagabon (Nonesuch)
Laetitia Tamko’s second album as Vagabon, the self-titled work of the same name, allowed her to quit her engineering job and travel the world playing her own brand of indie folk with the odd dash of pop splashed in. Her silky vocals do most of the work on “Vagabon” which is often accompanied by sparse instrumental accompaniments.
It is hard to place any specific point of influence, but this time out she wrote, produced and played most of what we hear. On the standout “Water Me Down” there is bright electronic energy as her lilting vocals just spill out so perfectly: “Never meant to be you / Never meant to be me / Never meant to be us / Never meant for?all?of this.” This is a special wonder.
15. Local Natives –Violet Street (Loma Vista)
Local Natives have been evolving their soaring three-part vocal harmonizing for almost a decade now. They construct songs that build slowly into towering rock pop anthems, flying dangerously close to the sun before transforming into something magical. Although they will never make a record as perfect as their debut “Gorilla Manor”, “Violet Street” is an inspired and welcome comeback.
There is something brighter and more relaxed here than the past few releases. Big polished singles like “When Am I Gonna Lose You” leverage all three vocalists who take turns moving us towards some glorious sunsetting relationships. There is always an optimism lurking behind the curtains of a Local Natives song. On “Café Amarillo” they put it all in context “I don’t want to die before I learn to live / Looking for my exits / Still so bad at making plans I plan to keep / How long has it been?” Indeed.
A bunch of other stuff that you must hear …
16. Whitney – Forever Turned Around (Secretly Canadian) The most relaxed, lushly produced and upbeat album of the year for me was the blissful second album from this quickly maturing dynamic duo. Put the top down and press play.
17. FONTAINES D.C. – Dogrel (Partisan Records) These young Irish punks rock hard and fast and with that accent and attitude that remind me of a lot of bands I used love when my tastes we a lot harder.
18. Weyes Blood– Titanic Rising (SubPop) Of all the old-fashioned Karen Carpenter meets Carly Simon influenced albums that have emerged in their wake, Natalie Mering’s SubPop debut is a marvel of patience and control and unlike anything I have heard in decades.
19. Tycho – Weather (Mom + Pop) Adding vocalist Saint Sinner to the band, Tycho expands well beyond their signature icy spacey instrumentalism into something far more reminiscent and inclusive of Everything But The Girl or Zero 7 era musicality.
20. Elbow – Giants of All Sizes (Polydor) Elbow continues to be the most underappreciated British rock band I can think of. Guy Garvey’s vocals always seem lifted from high above while the band builds him a magic carpet for him to croon from.
21. Bon Iver – i, i (Jagjaguar) Justin Vernon is as brilliant as he is frustrating, daring to stretch out into brave new directions even though you know he’s capable of something so much more accessible and iconic. If you’re not moving forward, you’re not really moving.
22. FKA Twigs – Magdalene (Young Turks) It is rare to find music this sparse yet so full of emotion and understated energy and creativity. “Magdalene” isn’t an always record, but it is a definitely sometimes.
23. Amo Amo – Amo Amo (Amo Amo) LA’s hippie dippy trippy, lazy hazy brilliant throwback California jam band channel’s the freedom of the 60’s with a Jim James produced polish, weaving some kind of misplaced gold.
24. Yola – Walk Through Fire (East Eye Sound) Like Dusty Springfield before her, Yola’s exquisite brand of country soul (from Britain) is a sultry joy produced by the incomparable Dan Auerbach.
25. Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe (ATO Records) On this impeccable debut, British born indie pop goddess has made album that graphs the past and the present into something totally new.
26. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride (Columbia) In the six years since their last album, many of the Vampires became producers and soloists, but Ezra recruited some new members and released this expansive masterwork filled with a handful of celebrity guests.
27. Orville Peck – Pony (SubPop) On this extraordinary debut a gay, oddly masked, Canadian indie-country singer, who sounds like cross between Wall of Voodoo and Bryan Ferry takes us on a trip down the dusty roads of our collective souls.
28. Mannequin Pussy – Patience (Epitaph) Philly’s reigning and most melodic pop-punk band, whose music seems ripped straight from the 90’s, has delivered a banging bump of nostalgia.
29. Cass McCombs – Tip of The Sphere (Anti-) This sprawling genre defying further cements the legacy of one of the most versatile singer-songwriters of our time blending folk, rock and psychedelia into a warm blanket sound words.
30. Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima (Lux Prima/BMG) There was no doubt that a combination like this could be anything other than dreamy and delicious. Two great tastes that taste great together.
31. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile (RVNG) Florida born, Ecudorian Roberto Lange spins gentle cross-cultural gold alternating between electro-pop and Latin jazz on this gentle excursion.
32. Soak – Grim Town (Rough Trade) Irish phenom Soak started releasing music and got a Mercury nomination as a teenager, and eventually released this melodic masterpiece which captures both the spirit of innocence with the pressure of maturity.
To listen to the Bestest of the Bestest 2019 listen here: