Another year flies by. Where does the time go? So much music to squeeze into such a small space. 2019 seemed like a transitional year for music, just as the country seems to be going through a transition of its own. There seemed to be fewer absolute standout full length records this year, perhaps more a sign of the times, as singles seem to be all most of the general public seem to find time to be bothered with anymore, while the albums that did resonate seemed to reach a smaller audience than usual. Sure, there was the odd Taylor Swift record that made the mainstream, but mainly we are talking about special records that had a smaller audience but cut deeply.
However, there were some very fine full length releases this year, but they were usually ones you had to actually search for, as they didn't gently fall into your lap the way record companies of old would vigorously promote them on radio and TV. We are heading into a new era...2020...a decade that begins with music everywhere and yet, less knowable than ever due to its way of inserting itself into the backdrop of everyday life rather than being a distinctive focal point. Large venues are still selling lots of concert tickets, but how long will that last when all the superpowered heavy hitters of old are dying off? The last five years were particularly bad, losing some major talents like David Bowie (who seemed to have retired touring long before), Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty, Prince, George Michael, Glenn Frey, Emerson & Lake, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Scott Weiland, Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, Dolores O'Riordan, Mark E. Smith, Lemmy Kilmister, Dr. John, Ric Ocasek, and too many others to name here. When one thinks about all the artists in their 70's and up still out there touring, it's a shame that we are likely on the cusp of losing a generation of some of the most influential artists in music that have ever lived (I won't name examples here in case they read this and get depressed). So let's focus on the now and what resonated with us here at our humble shop in 2019...Hopefully you find something in the list you feel like checking out...
1) NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS--Ghosteen
More a work of art than a work of commerce, Nick Cave continues paying tribute to the memory of his deceased son by focusing on his family unit in the aftermath of a tragic accident. This album operates in a world divorced from most modern music, one where word painting and sonic ambience combine to reflect the beauty of the love in Cave's soul. Transcendent.
2) ANGEL OLSEN--All Mirrors
Angel Olsen was a woman of many labels. American indie female singer-songwriter etc. This album shatters much of what people knew of her. Layers of warm and swirling orchestras slide around her shifting vocal hues to create one of the most unique sounding albums of 2019. If Kate Bush was an influence, the torch seems to be getting passed through the mirrors of this album, Olsen's own Hounds of Love.
3) WEYES BLOOD--Titanic Rising
If Angel Olsen's album was 2019's nod to Kate Bush, Weyes Blood's 2019 album was a bit of an homage to Aimee Mann in a spacey sort of way. Whether or not Natalie Mering's intention was to invoke that sound (adding a bit of Nilsson and Nyro in the process), she spins melodies here that sound like the best classic singer-songwriter records of rock's golden age without being merely a copy artist. A breathtaking talent emerges.
4) THOM YORKE--Anima
After all the records Thom Yorke has made over the past three decades, Radiohead was still going strong, as 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool was one of their best. Yorke steps away from that band in what is basically a side-trip, but what a trip this one is. There are definitely times here where past and future collide, but Yorke somehow seems to keep mining new ideas from what have become his typical musical palette (granted, his palette is more expansive than most). Only Thom could take a song like "Dawn Chorus", a one-note melodic offering with fractured bits of text, and turn it into one of the most soul-crushing songs of the year.
5) ELBOW--Giants of All Sizes
Elbow. The band that very few in the know or have even heard of. That's an unfortunate thing, because as much as Guy Garvey gets compared to Peter Gabriel vocally, one would think they could be on the level of popularity that Gabriel had at least before his 80's pop explosion. They quietly continue making records, and this, their eighth studio record, deals with the death of Garvey's father in emotionally poignant ways. The band seems somewhat reinvigorated here, with some of Garvey's finest vocal work to date on display. An unassuming treasure.
6) LANA DEL REY--NFR!
The year of the Lana. I begin to ask myself this...What makes this album so much better than her others? That's a question seriously worth pondering as really...all of her albums have been very good (yes, even Honeymoon). While the album is a bit lengthy with the third song being the nearly-ten-minute romp "Venice Bitch", NFR! could have probably done with a bit of editing and track rearrangement, but overall it's just another strong piece of modern Americana from a woman who continues to find new facets of the character that is Lana Del Rey.
7) THE NATIONAL--I am Easy to Find
Some folks wanted to write this off as a kind of vanity side-project, but I'll go out on a limb and say it's one of their best albums yet. The National are still managing to find new ways to present their material, and while it might be just a tad long and feature one or two too many interlude moments (I'm looking at the choir mostly), overall, this is a very beautiful album, probably their most intimate. Intimacy may not sell scads of records, but what they tapped into was a certain calm with the addition of several female vocal contributors including a peerless Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie), Sharon van Etten, and Lisa Hannigan among others. It's easy to find much to like here if you can suspend expectation.
8) THESE NEW PURITANS--Inside the Rose
Possibly the most obscure artist on the list, These New Puritans took six years making this album, a dark and beautiful mix of electronic and acoustic chamber music, claustrophobic and also expansive. Twin brothers George and Jack Barnett are now the remaining core of the group (after slimming down from a foursome), and while the hushed Spirit of Eden-ness of their last effort, Field of Reeds, has been replaced with a certain dark keyboard texture, this album and its focal attention to detail is what makes it so uniquely special. I'm intrigued by what the next chapter will bring.
9) DIVINE COMEDY--Office Politics
Neil Hannon has been at it now for nearly 30 years. If you live in America, chances are you have never heard of him. He is a British icon, one of the pack of Britpop bands of the 90's and virtually the only who has been at it the entire time. His music is extremely English...Fun and funny, quirky and endearing, and while he's had one or two detours (EMI tried pushing him in a Radiohead direction once, pairing him with their producer, Nigel Godrich...It didn't really work...), he always produces quality material. This concept album about the workplace and it's pitfalls is full of (divine) comedy and tragedy, with Hannon showing how one cannot have yin without yang. There are a couple goofy diversions, but with tracks called "The Synthesiser Service Center Super Summer Sale" and "Philip and Steve's Furniture Removal Company" (named for composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who used to move furniture in their early days), you know you're going to be in for a bit of humor as well.
10) JENNY LEWIS--On the Line
The album Jenny Lewis was destined to make. While exhibiting some vocal chops in her prior band, Rilo Kiley, Lewis went on to make quiet folk and indie rock records that were all interesting, but didn't seem to put her up where she deserved to be. Her last album, 2014's The Voyager, was quite good, but there's a certain effortless breeziness about this album and tracks like "Red Bull & Hennessey" or "Rabbit Hole". Having a clear reference point to write about (mostly based on her mothers' problems with partying and being mom), Jenny's pen grew sharp and her melodies tough and yet vulnerable. Definitely a great summer driving album and catchy as hell.
11) VAMPIRE WEEKEND--Father of the Bride
Six years away, and while the overall feel is a bit more mature, Vampire Weekend are still one of the greatest indie bands in America.
Largely overlooked, Miki Berenyi (formerly of British shoegaze band, Lush) returned with a new band that featured enough sonic touchstones of her past work, coupled with a new sense of political urgency and fire. Extraordinary.
13) BIG THIEF--U.F.O.F. / Two Hands
Big Thief gave us not one, but two great albums in 2019, and while they really are rather different in tone and style, they are two sides of the greater whole that is Big Thief 2019. Does that make any sense at all??
14) MICHAEL KIWANUKA--Kiwanuka
Kiwanuka's third studio album continues to show just how talented and essential this guy is to the current music scene, bringing an old-school sensibility and intelligence to a world sorely lacking in it.
15) SHARON VAN ETTEN--Remind Me Tomorrow
Featuring some of the best cover art this year, van Etten returns after five years away (and a stint in the Twin Peaks roadhouse in 2017) to deliver her most potent collection of material yet, with "Seventeen" being one of the best songs of the year as well.
16) CHARLI XCX--Charli
Either you get Charli or you don't, but this surely has to be the sound of pop music in 2019. While there's a lot of Taylor, Carly, and Katy still around, Charli is the loose cannon of pop. You never know exactly where she's going, but somehow you can't look away.
17) ALEX CAMERON--Miami Memory
Speaking of loose cannons, Miami Memory was a bit of a detour from the Springsteen stance of the last Alex Cameron album, as he moves squarely into more personal territory, describing his love, hate, and intimate sexual situations in graphic detail (the title track's lyric "Eating your ass like an oyster/The way you came like a tsunami" taking the prize). Still, there's a lot of heart here, and certainly more of Alex.
Getting personal must have been the theme of 2019, since we got the records we did from Nick Cave, Jenny Lewis, Alex Cameron, and this one from Shura. Detailing her love and courtship with a female paramour, Shura is not only funky on tracks like "Religion", but she can also be quite sensitive on songs like "Princess Leia", reminiscing about how she felt hearing Carrie Fisher had died while she herself was flying on a plane. Touching.
19) LIAM GALLAGHER--Why Me? Why Not
It shouldn't work but it does. Gallagher's second solo album since ditching the Beady Eye moniker has brought Liam back to pretty full Oasis-y swagger, while his brother continues to make experimental art rock (and Robbie Williams makes bloated Christmas cookies). You can't keep Ol' Liam down, thank God.
20) LOWER DENS--Competition
If Beach House were peppier and more political, they'd sound more like these fellow Baltimoreans. American yacht pop delivered with a message.
21) BON IVER--i.i
Finding a better synthesis of the electro-avant garde than he did on 22.a million, Bon Iver brings elements more effortlessly full circle, making a more enjoyable album in the process as well.
22) LIZZO--Cuz I Love You
What else can be said except she IS the breakout star of the year along with Billie Eilish, and her hits "Juice" and "Truth Hurts" can be found here. Sasha Flute indeed.
23) BILLIE EILISH--When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go
The other big breakout star of 2019 is 17-year old Billie Eilish, who made one of the most daring and rather bleak albums for such a young artist. It's almost like the absence of melody without being rap...
24) HOT CHIP--Bath Full of Ecstasy
They just keep quietly making great records, and this one features a couple of their most well-rounded songs with "Melody of Love" and "Hungry Child".
A victory lap for a band who has risen above many personal problems, Deceiver is their most focused and exciting effort so far. Keep it up, guys.
26) MARK RONSON--Late Night Feelings
Who would have thought that Mark Ronson's best album would be a late-night comedown record featuring only guest female singers crooning laments over textured dance beats? Well...it is. Points to Yebba, who is one of the most extraordinary vocal talents that has yet to really break through, and while the Camila Cabello and Miley Cyrus contributions help to sell the record, the best turns (other than Yebba) are from Angel Olsen, Lykke Li, and King Princess.
27) WILCO--Ode to Joy
Wilco made another enjoyable album here, and while texturally more muted than most of their records (it has more in common with the last Jeff Tweedy solo record sonically), there's fire in the lyrics guiding these songs down their spinning paths. Rewarding on repeat listens.
28) JULIA JACKLIN--Crushing
An unbelievable album that slipped by early in the year, Australian artist Julia Jacklin details an imploding relationship in crushing detail. Speaking your truth in honest detail can be cathartic. This record is a do not miss.
29) UNDERWORLD--Drift Series 1
Making a song a week for a year is a tricky prospect. You have to really be committed to the effort, and once you begin, you really can't stop. Underworld did just that, and they were so happy with the results, they're doing it again in 2019! Here they pick out their personal highlights to make an album that plays well as a continuous experience, and if you've got five hours and some extra cash, pick up the box set to hear their whole damn year.
30) PURPLE MOUNTAINS--Purple Mountains
RIP David Berman. Great album. That is all.
PRINCE--Originals AND 1999 (Deluxe edition)----
----(These would probably top the list but I'm trying to keep it to things recorded this year)
AMERICAN FOOTBALL--American Football
BAT FOR LASHES--Lost Girls
JENNY HVAL--Practice of Love
RIDE--This is Not a Safe Place
BOB MOULD--Sunshine Rock
BETTER OBLIVION COMMUNITY CENTER--Better Oblivion Community Center
CRANBERRIES--In the End
JESSICA PRATT--Quiet Signs
STURGILL SIMPSON--Sound & Fury
SLEATER-KINNEY--Center Won't Hold
STRAND OF OAKS--Eraserland
NEW PORNOGRAPHERS--In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
ANDREW BIRD--My Finest Work Yet
MARK LANEGAN--Somebody's Knocking
BLACK KEYS--Let's Rock
RACONTEURS--Help Us Stranger
CAGE THE ELEPHANT--Social Cues
OCEAN BLUE--Kings & Queens/Knaves & Thieves
MAVIS STAPLES--We Get By
BILL CALLAHAN--Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
MOUNTAIN GOATS--In League With Dragons
CRAIG FINN--I Need a New War
HOLD STEADY--Thrashing Thru the Passion
JOAN SHELLEY--Like the River Loves the Sea
CATE LE BON--Reward
FOALS--Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost 1 & 2
PURE BATHING CULTURE--Night Pass
BARONESS--Gold & Gray
Bring on 2020! It's already shaping up to be a very strong music year!